Decoding Mitt Romney’s Best Debate Answer

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Rick Perry’s astonishing and tragic brain freeze was last night’s most enduring debate moment. But given that it makes Mitt Romney all the more likely to be the Republican nominee, it’s worth returning to an answer he gave about perhaps his greatest vulnerability–that he’s a shameless flip-flopper–and which told us a lot about his political strategy. Asked by John Harwood about his record of switching positions for political convenience, and whether voters can be sure they know the real Mitt Romney, this is what the candidate said:

I think people know me pretty well. Particularly in this state, state of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, this close by.  Utah, where I served in the Olympics. People understand I’m a man of steadiness and constancy.  I don’t think you are going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than do I.  I have been married to the same woman for 25 — excuse me,  I will get in trouble —  for 42 years.  I have been in the same church my entire life.  I worked at one company for 25 years and  I left that to go off and help save the Olympic games. I think it is outrageous the Obama campaign continues to push this idea when you have in the Obama administration the most political presidency we have seen in modern history.  They decide when to pull out of Afghanistan based on politics.  If I’m president of the United States I will be true to my family, faith and our country and I will never apologize for the United States of America.

This answer features two important components, one which has become a standard Romney tactic and one new to my ears. The new part is Romney’s effort to deflect the critique of his political core with a defense of his nonpolitical character. The danger of being branded a flip-flopper is that, eventually, voters not only cease to trust you on certain issues but will condemn you on a deeper level of character, as a weak figure without the spine to lead. It’s a hex the Bush campaign successfully cast on John Kerry in 2004. Because Romney’s record is so utterly chameleonic, he has no good issue-based way to defend it. It’s a character problem. So he needs to redefine how we think of character. His answer here implicitly argues that what’s important isn’t where Romney the politician has stood over the years; It’s how Romney the man has lived–as a husband, a churchgoer (not that he cared to specify which church) and a steady, longtime employee (as opposed to a perennial political candidate). Substantively, of course, this tells us nothing about Romney’s core principles, such as they are, or how he would lead the country. But it’s a clever way to spin a question for which he has no good answer. (Although I might suggest that future debate moderators force Romney into the specifics of his myriad switcheroos rather than pose a question so generalized that he’s able to respond on his own terms.)

And note what Romney does as soon as he’s finished performing that trick. This is the element of Romney’s response that will be familiar to anyone who’s watched these debates: Make it about Obama. Time and again when confronted with a thorny question, Romney has dispatched with it as quickly and superficially as possible before abruptly veering into pungent indictment of the Obama administration. Ask him about RomneyCare and he’ll attack ObamaCare. Ask about tax hikes in Massachusetts and he’ll attack Obama as a tax-and-spend liberal. I suspect we’d see the same thing if Romney wins the nomination. Romney knows he’s a flawed and not terribly loveable candidate. But he also knows that plenty of Americans are exasperated with the President. And the more he can make his case an indictment of, and referendum on, Barack Obama, the more likely he is to defeat him.