Romney finds his voice


ENERGISED AND batting off the front foot, Mitt Romney, it seems, is very much not the spent force some have portrayed. He has found his voice. As the US presidential campaign heads into its last month the Obama poll leads are narrowing, nationally and in key swing states, and in the first of three TV debates Romney has manifested real teeth. Instant polls show two-thirds rate him the winner on the night.

There were no killer blows landed by either man in Denver. The president, for reasons best known to himself, eschewed countless opportunities to return to the sharper critiques of Romney that had helped to portray him as an insensitive, aloof billionaire and political chameleon, and which contributed substantially to his standing in the polls. Why no reference to the infamous “47 per cent who don’t pay tax” tape, to Bain Capital’s asset-stripping record, to the “Etch-a-Sketch” confessions of a senior aide? His disappointed supporters may suspect that Obama’s edge may have been blunted by advisers to counter suggestions that he has left-wing sympathies or wants to promote class war. But he paid the price.

The result was a passionless debate that felt more like an academic seminar on the weakness of the economy, long Obama’s Achilles’ heel, ground and language that played to Romney strengths. At times, viewers will have been baffled by the profusion of detailed, contested statistics – often challenged, notably on “Obamacare benefit cuts”, but never decisively discredited – and policy arguments more at home in a Senate committee room.

Yet, although not “big idea” politics, or rousing “Yes We Can” rhetoric, the debate nevertheless reflected very real and profound ideological differences over taxes, spending and healthcare, and the role of government. “A divide,” the New York Times observed, “over domestic policy greater than any since President Ronald Reagan and Walter F. Mondale faced off in 1984.”

The divide is between what Obama called Romney “trickle down” economics, the view that, unhindered by the bureaucratic hand of the state, entrepreneurship and jobs flourish, and the view that the state has an important supportive role to play in the economy promoting growth and fairness. In this prism they did battle over Obama’s record, debt, the effect of programme cuts, deficits, tax, and healthcare, and who better championed the put-upon middle class. Romney repeatedly insisting, contrary to Democratic “lies”, that he would not reduce the share of taxes paid by the wealthiest.

When they came to debate “Obamacare” Romney also sought to insulate himself from the deep unpopularity among the elderly of his plans to privatise pension provision by providing state vouchers to buy private insurance. That would not apply to those currently in receipt of or about to receive pensions, he said. But he did not explain why, if older people have what he appeared to concede were legitimate fears for their pensions, the young need not fear a voucher system. Nor, inexplicably, did Obama. But then that was the story of the night.

Has Romney changed the election dynamic? We’ll see.

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