The highly anticipated debate in Denver was the rarest of all things in American politics: an unspinnable event. Almost all who watched the contest concluded that there was one president on the stage, and it was Mitt Romney. Obama sympathizers took the measure of the situation and decided that the best thing to do was to hoist the white flag and get out of Dodge. Chris Matthews asked, “Where was Obama tonight?” James Carville observed that it “looked like . . . President Obama didn’t want to be there.” A few half-hearted attempts to deflect the result by arguing that Mitt Romney had bullied Jim Lehrer collapsed under the revelation that Barack Obama had held onto the microphone for four minutes longer than his opponent.
Yet before the milk bottles are opened at Romney headquarters in Boston, his advisers will have to consider whether a victory in a debate by itself can change the trend of a presidential campaign. After all, President Obama committed no decisive blunder, nor was there anything like the perfect “gotcha” moment to replay time and again for the next month. Experience has shown that a defeat for an incumbent in an early debate, like the one George Bush experienced at the hands of John Kerry in 2004, can turn out to be just one of those “bumps in the road.” The only way for the Romney camp to transform this impressive win on debate points into a political advantage is to find the compelling themes that can be integrated into a fuller campaign strategy.
Romney’s greatest success in Denver came from his threading of two needles.
First, he projected himself as a leader who was at the same time bolder yet warmer, stronger yet more human, than most had viewed him until now. Romney was on the offensive throughout—he was more “aggressive” than Obama (Tom Bevan said he “manhandled” the president), but he also -managed to make himself appear more likable, charming, and compassionate.
Romney discovered a formula that had eluded him throughout the past year, and it is a remarkable feat of alchemy. Up until this point, the two qualities of political strength and personal warmth were, perhaps reasonably, thought to be opposites. One of them could be pursued only at the expense of the other: hence the decision at the Republican convention to give an acceptance speech that avoided strong policy statements in an effort to reveal to America the personal Mitt, hitherto buried somewhere deep inside a stiff public persona. The personal anecdote of his father giving his mother a rose every day was touching, but was it a pathway to the presidency?
There is no doubt that Mitt Romney has suffered from a failure to display warmth and empathy. The poll results on this point are striking. On the question who seems more likable and friendly, Barack Obama—hardly the cuddly and fuzzy type himself—bests Mitt Romney better than two to one (61 percent to 27 percent) and is deemed far more in touch with the problems of the middle class -(57 percent to 37 percent). Political analyst Bill Schneider has argued that these qualities are decisive: “The only way that the president can get reelected in this difficult economic environment is by exploiting his personal appeal.”
Romney used the debate to show that his deficiency in “connecting”—his lack of a political gene—can best be overcome by pressing his political case. His concern for the middle class and the unemployed, as he explained, is demonstrated not just in his profession of caring, but also in his policy of resisting a tax increase and lowering tax rates. It was the argument for these positions, advanced with passion and conviction, that helped make the case for Romney’s warmth and showed his sincerity. Mitt Romney in public is always going to be primarily a public person; for him, this is the best way to sell his private side.
The second needle Romney managed to thread in Denver was even more unexpected. Romney was able to appear at one and the same time more conservative and more postpartisan than he has till now.
For weeks within the Republican party, the Romney campaign has been criticized for adopting a strategy of “referendum” over “choice.” “Referendum” refers to the theory that this election will be won by voters deciding that they do not want to reelect Barack Obama. The challenger’s job is to make himself acceptable, a credible alternative, so that voters dissatisfied with the president can easily choose a safe option. “Choice” refers to the theory that the public also needs compelling reasons to vote for the challenger.
Referendum is naturally associated with lying low and trying to target independents piecemeal (women in particular). From this point of view, articulating big, bold plans at this stage represents nothing more than intellectual chest-thumping that is disconnected from politics on the ground. The independents want a more conciliatory candidate who can work with the other side. The choice school contends that it is only by laying out a big, bold alternative program that a challenger can persuade and motivate voters, including the independents and undecideds who hold the balance.
Romney found the sweet spot here. He did make big appeals in the debate, moving far more to the choice position than he had in recent weeks. Yet when the opportunity was presented to embrace the logic of the referendum position, he took it too.
The plain fact is that many of the voters who are undecided at this point are the very ones who are sick of deadlock and partisan conflict. Partisans and “big idea” people may think what they will, but this feeling in the electorate was a significant reason for Obama’s appeal in 2008. Romney captured the postpartisan mantle from Obama at the point where the president brought out what he thought was his trump card, commending Mitt Romney for initiating Romneycare. Romney took the compliment, insisted on some of the differences with Obama-care, and then showed how he had passed his program in Massachusetts working with a legislature that was 87 percent Democratic. The Frank Luntz focus group of independents found this to be one of the most appealing moments in the debate. Romney’s supposed Achilles’ heel, after his political ACL surgery, has turned into one of his greatest strengths.
These two themes—a leader whose empathy comes from strength and conviction and a person whose bold plans are not in tension with a temperament conducive to bipartisanship—are the “takeaways” from last week that can put Mitt Romney on the path to victory.
James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.