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.