For those of you who have been following US presidential debates since the Repubican primaries, Mitt Romney’s shift from ultra-conservative GOP darling to his newfound moderation represents nothing less than a yogi-like feat of political bending. For those of you who haven’t been following or have only recently tuned in, this shift looks a little something like this: in the short time since the Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney has made a dramatic pivot from the electoral figurehead of a party seeking, among many things, dramatic cuts in social spending, increased tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and decreased, even eliminated access to abortion and contraception for women. In August, as he accepted his party’s nomination alongside the conservative Paul Ryan, Romney was lauded not just as an adherent but as the very image of his party’s conservatism. However, the Romney that arrived at the first debate in Denver just two weeks ago was very different from the Romney at the Convention in August. This new moderate Mitt, which I have chosen to call Romney 2.0, suddenly seems to be all about middle class values and small business. In light of this development, one must ask where did Romney 2.0 come from? And, more importantly, how long will he be with us should he win the presidency?
In the final stretch of the general election, Mitt Romney has actually contradicted much of his own party’s platforms in an attempt to appeal to the moderates and independents. However, just how much of this new-found moderation will be tolerated by the GOP? It seems that with his decisive victory against Obama in the Denver debate, Romney was given a free pass on his stances on taxation. It seems that as long as his performance brought the party closer to a White House takeover, the actual means of getting there could be justified. However, in Long Island this week, Romney played the same moderate card, even doubling down on such rhetoric as a more energetic and poignantly critical Obama put him in the defensive. Without the same apparent success and with his momentum at the polls seeming to stall, conservatives will have sufficient cause to reign in the leash on his newfound moderation.
In the very first segment, he affirmed his support for an increase in Pell grants, which awards post-secondary scholarships to high school students. With regards to immigration, in one breath he affirmed that Obama had promised much and done little, though in the next one he advocated for a type of reform that looks like a curiously similar though watered-down version of Obama’s Dream Act. Even women were thrown a proverbial bone. Romney’s rhetoric regarding women’s issues seemed to fly in the face of the GOP platform, which decisively advocates the restriction of access to contraception, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, and the defeat of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as a job-killing burden on employers. In Tuesday’s debate, Romney 2.0 touted his record as an equal-opportunities employer of women (google search “binders full of women”) and affirmed that no employer should have the right to deny contraceptive coverage to women based on their personal views. In Tuesday’s debate, Romney sounded almost (GASP) like a Democrat!
The first question – where did this new Mitt come from – is easy enough to answer. Moderate Mitt is the result of a common political strategy for a candidate coming out of the primaries. In attempting to gain the party’s nomination, Romney had to pander to the fiscal and religious right. As with many other primaries, this last one proved to be a game of conservative one-upmanship: whoever could be the most conservative and still be seen as a credible opponent against Obama wins. Now that the fight for the nomination is over, Romney can theoretically assume that he can count on the votes from the far right and then must appeal to independents and moderates. The result, as we’ve seen, is the type of rhetorical duplicity that has plagued the general election debates thus far. In the time between the Convention and the first debate two weeks ago, we saw a Mitt in transition, plagued by a serious identity crisis. His primary-style rhetoric of villifying 47% of Americans as lazy and parasitic were costing him in the polls, and money from the conservative Super-PACs were being increasingly diverted towards Senate and Congressional races. However, by the time of the first debate, moderate Mitt had transformed from the conservative, big business champion to the middle-class hero we are seeing now.
The second question – just how long will this new moderation be tolerated – is considerably more difficult to answer. Though many influential conservatives both inside and outside the campaign have praised Romney’s performance in the two debates, their assessment of his handling of the issues is considerably problematic. All this rhetorical bluster and political grandstanding about not cutting programs that benefit the middle class is great and all, but it is considerably out of step with the GOP’s vision of a Romney Administration. After the debate, the influential conservative lobbyist and tea-party activist Grover Norquist explained this newfound moderation as mere rhetorical pomp.
“You’re now in the general election and you’ve already convinced conservatives why they should vote for you,” responded Norquist, “You’re now talking to undecided voters, who have a completely different set of issues.”
But Romney’s not talking about a different set of issues, he’s taking a different set of stances on those issues out of political convenience. If he’s this quick to sell his views for a vote during the election, the same type of political flexibility should be expected when it comes to the key issues facing a possible Romney Administration. While it’s easy to understand why this new moderation has caused some serious momentum, it’s equally as easy to imagine his party tightening the leash once the votes are counted.
Regardless of political allegiance, I think these questions highlight some important issues facing the United States’ hyper-partisan, media-obsessed political sphere. The gap between rhetoric and reality has widened. Throughout this election season, it has become increasingly apparent that we have entered a new era of politics – the post-truth era. Misinformation and confusion about both domestic and foreign policy issues have permeated much of the American electorate. I feel that the Romney campaign and its supporters have capitalized on this development by employing communication strategies that purposely serve to exploit this confusion, turning such events as the televised presidential debate into little more than political displays of obfuscation. While this is by no means a new aspect of politics, developments in mass media and the new ability for unlimited corporate spending on partisan attack ads in the election season have made deliberate misinformation considerably easier. Such rhetorical bending in the era of post-truth politics has added a thick level of opacity to our political system. The truth has become less and less important in politics, increasingly masked by confusing and deliberately misleading rhetoric. While the Romney camp by no means holds a monopoly on this type of rhetorical flexibility, I feel that his dramatic shift from ultra-conservatism to a dubious moderation perfectly highlights this troubling development.
– Alana Jesse