What Mitt Romney Really Believes

In the first presidential debate, the candidate reveals his core convictions.

There were moments in last night’s debate when you could almost imagine Mitt Romney being president, or at least playing one on TV. He was pithy. He was prepared. He was poised. He was very nearly presidential. But what he wasn’t, however, was specific—at least not in the ways that matter most. Romney’s performance was just that: a performance, designed to suggest what he might be like as president, but not what he would do. And yet it just might have revealed something even more important: who he hopes to be. 

Romney’s showing at the debate was unexpectedly good. He was aggressive but respectful, ready with facts but not impenetrably wonky, and generally on point with nearly all of his answers and responses. He spoke clearly and quickly, managing to speak 530 more words than President Obama despite talking for four minutes less overall. The president, in contrast, was sluggish and rambling, struggling to make even familiar defenses of his own first term. And more than anything else, it was the clear contrast—of style, demeanor, of focus and responsiveness—that won Romney the debate.

Yet while Romney’s answers were chock-full-o-facts, they remained light on the sort of policy specifics that his campaign has consistently refused to provide. Talking taxes at the beginning of the night, for example, Romney stuck mostly to what he wouldn’t do. “I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut,” he said in response to an accusation by the president. “I don't have a tax cut of a scale that you're talking about... I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people.” But then, rather than offer a clear framework for tax reform, Romney pivoted to an attack on the president’s record. “Under the president's policies,” he said, “middle-income Americans have been buried. They're just being crushed.”

What would he do instead? “I've described it,” Romney claimed, but his descriptions were still vague, more like lists of things he likes than practical plans. “It's energy and trade, the right kind of training programs, balancing our budget and helping small business. Those are the cornerstones of my plan.” What Romney would do was beside the point. What the president did—and what the president failed to do—was all that mattered.

Romney fared somewhat better on Medicare, where he offered what may be his best short description yet of the virtues of overhauling the program into a premium support system. The emphasis was on choice, competition, and access. “What I do to make sure that we can keep Medicare in place for them is to allow [beneficiaries] either to choose the current Medicare program or a private plan. Their choice,” he said. “They get to choose—and they'll have at least two plans that will be entirely at no cost to them.”

But he only offered this explanation after being pressed to declare his support for vouchers. Romney’s first instinct was to defend the status quo, highlighting the president’s cuts to Medicare and Romney’s willingness to leave it unchanged for current and near beneficiaries. “What I support is no change for current retirees and near-retirees to Medicare,” he responded the first time was asked about his support for vouchers. “And the president supports taking $716 billion out of that program.” The combination of answers was as awkward as it has been since Romney started running: Medicare is too expensive and must be reformed, and the president is wrong to have cut billions from the program.

Romney’s defenders sometimes argue that presidential candidates don’t need to offer much in the way of policy detail. After all, presidents are responsible more for setting agendas than drawing up particular legislative language. Which is true, but agendas require vision and leadership, something Romney’s campaign has so far been lacking.

And yet within the rain of bullet points that Romney unleashed on the president one could actually glimpse a hazy outline of what that vision might be. Over and over again, Romney circled around the idea that the government was the motivator of economic growth and competition, not the engine of the economy, but the oil that keeps the pistons pumping. Indeed, one reason Romney may have struggled to appear presidential is that that’s not really how he sees himself. Instead, he envisions himself more as the CEO of the United States of America, Inc.—a facilitator of business and competition, a leader whose job is to assist the private sector, not direct it. 

At the end of the night, he said that the main question government should ask is “How do we make the private sector become more efficient and more effective?” On taxes, he framed the distinction not merely as higher versus lower taxes, but of impediments to growth. The president, he said, “would prefer raising taxes. I understand. The problem with raising taxes is that it slows down the rate of growth.” On Medicare, Romney argued for the virtues of the private market: “Let's see if we can't get competition into the Medicare world so that people can get the choice of different plans at lower cost, better quality. I believe in competition.”

For a candidate who has often seemed to lack core convictions, it was unexpectedly revealing. It may not have given us a sense of what, exactly he would do, but it did finally give us an idea of what it is that Mitt Romney really believes.

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  • KDN||

    What the Debate Revealed About Mitt Romney's Core Convictions

    That he doesn't have any? Oh, we already knew that.

  • The Hammer||

    Come on, KDN. He seems to have a very deep conviction that he should be President.

  • DarrenM||

    He seems to have a very deep conviction that he should be President.

    As does every other pol running for president. So?

  • Calidissident||

    The Hammer was making fun of Romney

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    apparently not Paul, his convictions were elsewhere.

  • The Hammer||

    So most of them at least espouse a reason for wanting to be President. RP wanted to make the government smaller and less intrusive, Obama wanted to "fundamentally transform" something something megalomaniacal delusion something something, Santorum wanted to punch libertarians in the face or something, and Gingrich wanted to build a moon base. Romney seems like he'll get sworn in, settle in to the Oval Office and say "now what?"

  • Alien Invader||

    And that's bad? If only that was what he'd really do, I'd have to seriously think about voting for him. It would be the lesser evil by so vast a margin....

  • Peej||

    I think the fact that he doesn't believe in a centrally planned economy has been clear from the beginning. That alone makes him the lesser of two evils when compared to the other guy.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    The Romney didn't talk about specifics meme is just more bullshit media spin. Laughably so considering that their candidate won on Hope-n-Change four years ago.

    Here's the truth. The level of specifics that media douches claim to want would be meaningless, (how's Obama's opposition to a mandate working out for everyone?) We're electing the president, not a dictator. He has to work with 535 other elected politicians withing a limiting framework and deal with unanticipated future events. Broad philosophical positions and goals are more indicative of how the president will act in office than claims that he'll change line 27 of page 348 of the PPACA.

  • BarryD||

    ...and this is exactly the tack that anyone writing an article that was going to be anti-Romney to begin with, would take, if Romney did say something like that he'd change 348:27 of PPACA.

    That's the thing...

    What a politician hopes to accomplish, what he really believes, and where he really comes from, are the ONLY things that really matter. We're electing a person, not voting on a Proposition, California-style.

  • Tulpa Doom||

    Suderman is probably going to have to burn the midnight oil again tonight to pump out enough anti-Romney nitpick articles to "balance" the Obama-dissing in the debate threads last night.

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    go cry in your soup Tulpa.

  • Tulpa Doom||

    Hardly. Regime change looks far more likely today than yesterday.

  • hk||

    You're naive if you think Romney will change the course of anything. He doesn't sound very capitalist if you listen to his comments on the business cycle, taxes, war, etc.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    You're naive if you think Romney will change the course of anything.

    To be fair, "regime change" doesn't necessarily mean a change in policy. Just look at Odubya.

  • BoscoH||

    Here's the funny thing. I like the what he believes and how he thinks part, at least for the economic issues. He seems to be the first Republican nominee since Reagan who seems to fundamentally get it about competition. But when he dives into specifics, he spits out Obama circa 2010 with some tweaks.

    His ads now stress that he's about freedom, not trickle-down government. His team knows that they are targeting the median voter, not the base or the libertarian fringe. So they must think that this appeals to that median voter. That's a mildly hopeful sign. It's not going to win my vote, but it's still reason for hope.

  • Mickey Rat||

    "But what he wasn’t, however, was specific—at least not in the ways that matter most. Romney’s performance was just that: a performance, designed to suggest what he might be like as president, but not what he would do."

    Which describes what a presidential debate is, since at latest Kennedy v Nixon, if not before. What kind of detail do you expect a candidate to list in what are theoretically two-minute bites of speaking time?

    Why does Reason staff cconsistantly take the old school press' conventional wisdom as the base assumption in these types of articles?

  • BarryD||

    "Which describes what a presidential debate is"

    Exactly. Obama looked bad not because he didn't have certain numbers on the tip of his tongue. He looked bad because he looked like he'd be exactly the piece of shit that he is, as President.

  • ||

    It's not JUST that he didn't mention details in this debate. It's that HE NEVER MENTIONS DETAILS. It's always this vague "here's the result I want" stuff without any of the "and here's what will be done to accomplish that" stuff. The closes he gets is vague pronouncements like "I'll cut some money, but not from [lists most of government spending]". Not exactly the sort of thing you can trust. Or do you really think "we have to vote him in to find out what he'll do"?

  • Ken Shultz||

    I don't give a crap about Romney's core convictions.

    I care a lot about Obama's core convictions.

    We need to get rid of Obama--because of his core convictions.

    We can turn against Romney like crazed pit bulls the moment Obama's ass hits the curb.

  • BarryD||

    Agreed.

    Disrupting the current trajectory is priority one, to me.

    Unlike a lot of libertarians, I'm not looking for a Messiah to magically turn the US into libertopia. It's not going to happen. We need to do that, ourselves, slowly, one bit at a time.

  • Calidissident||

    Electing someone who's going to take America further away from libertarianism isn't the first step

  • BarryD||

    Evidence?

    It's not Mitt Romney vs. Ron Paul, you know.

  • Calidissident||

    Um, he wants to increase spending, start a war with Iran (and thinks he doesn't need Congressional approval), indefinitely detain and/or kill people with no due process, spy with no warrant, etc. Just because his opponent is driving us off a cliff doesn't mean Romney wouldn't also

  • BigT||

    You mean same as Obama??

    Romney will be slightly more libertarian. That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for liberty.

  • hk||

    Sorry but they're nearly identical, and the type of spending Romney believes in is much more dangerous.

  • Alex the wolf||

    I agree that defense spending also needs to be revised, but they are certainly not identical.

  • ||

    Ok, ok.... they're CLOSE to nearly identical. Feel better?

  • Rhino||

    i don't really agree with that. in Medicare, for instance, Romney will spend more than Obama, but that's because he believes in vouchers. Yes. The govt is still spending a lot of money on health care, but at least the people are the ones getting that money back and using it to buy the insurance that works best for them. It'll probably still end up raising the cost of health insurance just like govt student loans but it's a lot better than a govt controlled, no competition, one size fits all system.

  • Alex the wolf||

    Well said. America desperately needs a president that can make the economy grow at 3-4%, the gold standard can wait.

  • PapayaSF||

    I'm for the two-term limit for politicians: one term in office, one term in prison.

  • ||

    I don't give a crap about Romney's core convictions.

    I care a lot about Obama's core convictions.

    Hmmm. That sounds a lot like how people thought of Obama back in 2008. I'm sure it'll work better this time.....

  • hk||

    You don't sound that capitalist yourself.

  • ||

    What?

  • Ken Shultz||

    What do we know about Obama's core convictions?

    Obama nationalized GM on my dime--and he's going around bragging about it!

    Why should I care about Romney's core convictions?

  • T o n y||

    You shouldn't. You should care about the respective policy positions of the parties the candidates belong to. The one you're supporting basically invented corporate welfare and was hardly opposed to the series of bailouts that followed the crash they caused. They always blow up the deficit more than the other side because they believe in magical math, and, while they're at it, they want to stick government up your vagina and will never, ever stop wanting to fill prisons up with pot smokers, for Jesus.

    My the compromises you guys make to secure tax breaks for people wealthier than you will ever be.

  • PapayaSF||

    How has Obama's magical stimulus math been working out?

  • Mickey Rat||

    "The one you're supporting basically invented corporate welfare and was hardly opposed to the series of bailouts that followed the crash they caused."

    Since when have the Dem been opposed to corporate welfare as a practical matter (rather than rhetorical)?

    The Left upport corporate welfare all over the place and for a very long time, they jut dress it up in airy language like "investing in green jobs". It is one of their prime methods in exerting power over the private sector.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    The one you're supporting basically invented corporate welfare

    Lee Iacocca, along with Brown and Root, begs to differ.

  • Rhino||

    So if Ron Paul were the Republican nominee, you'd shouldn't look at what he stands for but still at the Republican Party's history?

  • Calidissident||

    Because they're pretty much Obama's with some cosmetic changes. I know you get your panties in a wad over GM, and as bad as that was, I'm a little more bothered by the fact that both these guys think it's ok to indefinitely detain and/or kill Americans with no due process and are likely to start a war with Iran in the next four years. People got screwed in the GM deal, but that's not nearly as bad as people getting killed or locked up unjustly

  • Ken Shultz||

    Because they're pretty much Obama's with some cosmetic changes.

    Romney would not have bailed out GM.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fu0Gu3j_mo

    Romney would not have squandered $700 billion on stimulus.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=484aWcQb-1w

    If he wouldn't have done either one of those things, then they're not the same.

    Just because Obama and Romney are both NOT libertarians, that does not make them the same.

  • Ken Shultz||

    How can being against the stimulus be the same as being in favor of it?

    How can being against nationalizing GM be the same as being in favor of it?

  • Calidissident||

    Romney supported economic stimulus, just not the way Obama did it. So we might have saved a few hundred billion doing a smaller stimulus, like McCain wanted to do. And Romney probably would have then blown it on the military. I conceded the point about GM, though he did select a vice president who supported the auto bailouts. You're missing the point. In the grand scheme of things, GM is small potatoes. These guys agree with the overwhelming majority of what the federal government does. Like Republicans and Democrats in general, they bicker about the remaining 5%. The GM bailout was reprehensible. But I think it's pretty fucking trivial compared to giving the government the power to indefinitely detain or kill with no due process, or spy with no warrant, which both these guys support. It's pretty trivial compared to starting another big war in the Middle East. GM wasn't even the most egregious bailout of the past 5 years. Romney was just as ok with giving Wall Street $700 billion as Obama was. I never said they are EXACTLY the same. I'm saying that the differences aren't substantial in the big picture. How many times did Romney say yesterday, "We need regulation" or "I will restore Obama's cuts to Medicare" or "I don't want to cut education spending" etc etc

  • fresno dan||

    right on Calidissident. It is just hilarious...or depressing...to hear Ronmey bitch about restoring "cuts" to medicare. Its (medicare) inefficient! Its ineffective! We should not spend any less! And we should not change how it operates!
    Oh, but in the future, we will let people CHOOSE to use medicare...uh, or this other program where they will spend more, or get less, or spend more and get less. You know, because of incentives...or sumthin'
    I do think Romney kinda doesn't want as many gay Mexicans taking jobs from bankers as Obama does...at least in months that begin with vowels.

  • Lyle||

    How fucking specific can one get in 38 minutes?

  • Bill||

    It's nearly impossible to get elected when you give specifics. Then they have something to use against you. If you say you'll cut anything at all, they will find someone to say how terrible that is. If you say you'll raise taxes, you're screwed (unless you say it's only on the rich and even then, it may hurt you). If you say you'll cut taxes, they'll spin that too.

    Romney is being a very smart politician, or maybe jut being himself, and his not giving specifics but saying things that sound good is exactly why people think he won the debate AND have little to attack him with today. Brilliant, I'd say. I still think he's a douche, but it may get him elected president. Especially with him NOT saying that he WON'T NOT cut Medicare or Obamacare but will just do them better and not the bad way Obama has done it or will do it. They don't know where to attack him. (Yes, the triple negative was on purpose).

  • ||

    You can get elected on specifics. You just have to lie about what they are. Most of the specifics Obama mentioned in 2008 haven't come to pass, either because he never follows up, or because he does the exact opposite.

  • ant1sthenes||

    You don't get elected on specific spending cuts, though. To a lot of people, it's THE END OF THE WORLD, to the rest, it's a drop in the bucket.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Candidates rarely ever give specifics. It's a lot easier to attck specifics than outlines which is why they avoid it like the plauge. No candidate is going to volunteer specifics except as possibly a last resort. I've seen many a candidate over the years drilled in debates repeatedly by moderators for more specifics and the candidates usually weasle out of it. In other words, this may be repeated as a talking point but it's certainly nothing new, and it probably doesn't hurt him. Offering specifics on the other hand very well could.

  • 11bravo||

    At this point anyone but Obama is fine with me. Mitt wasn't my choice...but this socialist posuer has to go!!

  • fresno dan||

    Is there actually any difference between Rombama and Obamney?
    Romney TALKS more aggressively about "constraining" Iran, and what would he do? - why, he would herd all the cats...uh, I mean Europeans into an allied position (who can resist Belgium and Denmark united???), and Iran would cower and do whatEVER we want. Of course, our "allies" in Afghanistan would still be killing us, making them slightly less reliable than the Europeans, but what is a little green on blue violance among friends?

    Next, Romney would hire more wall street fianaciers (Obama has so many now the Treasury building would burst should he hire one more), but they would probably be less effective at screwing us than democratic financiers (e.g., Rubin versus Paulson).
    And the deficit...increased defence spending, lower taxes, less, filling and tastes great, and a reduced deficit in 15 or 20 years...like every other president. We should follow these wise policies...because things are going so well...
    Oh, and free beer tomorrow. Your local premium craft beer. Part of the job training and education program to increase jobs, jobs, jobs!!!!

  • BigT||

    ...he envisions himself more as the CEO of the United States of America, Inc.—a facilitator of business and competition, a leader whose job is to assist the private sector, not direct it.

    Suderman must not meet many CEO's.

  • Rhino||

    The CEO of the corporation i work for doesn't go around the country from plant to plant directing the work flow. he does what suderman said. sets goals, set plans for the big picture (industry wide type)and sets policy to ensure that every plant is working towards the goals of the corporation.

  • duff||

    Why does anyone listen to ANYTHING these guys say? If the Obama phenomena taught the country anything, it should be: "Don't listen to what they say, look at what they've done.". In terms of spending and protection of civil liberties, the actions of the two parties are nearly identical.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Pete seems to display a remarkable capacity to suspend disbelief:

    On Medicare, Romney argued for the virtues of the private market: “Let's see if we can't get competition into the Medicare world so that people can get the choice of different plans at lower cost, better quality. I believe in competition.”

    Romney says that if you like Medicare, you can stay with it. The problem with Medicare is that it's incredibly generous. Who is going to leave Medicare to go with a private plan that costs more and offers less?

    If Pete had simply said "I can't stand Obama. I don't care what Romney said or what he thinks he's going to do or even what he actually will do. I just want Obama to go" his piece would have been a lot more coherent.

  • 4tehsnowflakes||

    Wasn't this first debate almost entirely limited to economic issues?

    Even if Romney had not performed so well, he would probably have sounded better on the economy to most Reasonoids than Obama. As it was, he hit so many sweet spots it almost sounded as if he were trying to appeal not just to the undecided voters in the middle (whom the pundits deride as uninformed idiots) but also to the Tea Party folks and even the Paul/Johnson crowd.

    GWB also sounded like a fiscal conservative in the campaigns and debates. Turned out he wasn't. Romney is almost surely another big-G Republican under whom the G would spend as much or more than with a second Obama term. And Obama was a big disappointment to people on the left and right who care about civil liberties. But he is going to carry my blue state easily.

  • 4tehsnowflakes||

    I mean the only remaining opportunity for Obama to skewer Romney on abortion or gay rights is now the town hall, since the last debate is supposed to be on foreign policy.

  • tipuasher||

    He may find himself in the position of defending an anti-Mormon site.
    http://fabianzaccaria.com

  • ari||

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