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Romney Returns to Form ... Briefly

Mitt Romney did the strangest thing on Tuesday morning, as he was starting his address to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. He made a warm, self-deprecating joke. And it was funny. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned this election season, it’s that a few words from Bill Clinton can do any man a lot of good,” Romney said, following a welcome from the former president. “After that introduction, I guess all I have to do is wait a day or two for the bounce.”

We haven’t seen much of that Romney on the campaign trail. We also haven’t seen much of the Romney who, for the next ten minutes or so, used the opportunity to offer his thoughts on strategies for aid to developing countries. The substance of Romney’s remarks didn’t seem particularly bold or insightful: Mostly he made bland calls for relying more on public-private partnerships. “For American foreign aid to become more effective, it must embrace the power of partnerships, access the transformative nature of free enterprise, and leverage the abundant resources that can come from the private sector.” But the tone was noteworthy, because it was so different from the tone Romney has adopted on the campaign trail. Romney was patient, soft-spoken, even-keeled.

That tone was altogether appropriate for the occasion—an apolitical posture for what is, at least in the context of campaign politics, an apolitical meeting. But it’s also a reminder of how different and, I think, more appealing Romney can be when he’s not trying to be such an ideologue. 

One of the best speeches I ever saw Romney give was during the last campaign, at the Detroit Economic Club, when he outlined what was, at that time, his economic agenda. He was using Powerpoint and the whole speech felt more like a consultant’s presentation than a political address. It was boring but, in its own way, compelling. I didn’t agree with what Romney was saying; particularly in light of more recent statements, I think Romney lacks a basic undersanding of and compassion for people less fortunate than him. But I could see how somebody listening to speech would come away thinking that Romney knew what he was talking about—that he was genuinely interested in drawing conclusions based on data, not satisfying the preconceptions of his supporters. I could even see how, despite our apparently different values, Romney would sometimes make sound, even clever judgments.

Nowadays, Romney makes a totally different impression. The recent interview with “60 Minutes,” about which I wrote yesterday, is a perfect example. By suggesting that emergency rooms were an adequate source of health care, Romney wasn’t merely contradicting what he’d said less than two years ago. He was spewing analytical nonsense. People who rely on ERs aren’t getting either preventative or follow-up care. That’s bad medicine. People who rely on ERs are also running up huge bills, which they usually can’t pay, forcing hospitals to pass along the cost to taxpayers and private payers. That’s bad economics.

The best argument for Romney as president is that he’s a problem-solver—an analyst who takes in all the facts, listens to different arguments, and makes the right call. Colleagues from his time at Bain and his tenure as governor say that’s how he operated back then. And it shows. Bain made a lot of money. Massachusetts got quasi-universal health care. But, as a presidential candidate in 2012, Romney has frequently put aside data, research, and even basic math, all for the sake of political expediency.

Which is the real Romney? David Brooks last week suggested “he’s a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not—some sort of cartoonish government-hater.” Maybe. But, as Brooks also noted, it "it scarcely matters."

Presidents can’t walk away from commitments they’ve made as candidates. And candidates can’t simply change their personas six weeks before Election Day. As if to prove the point, Romney concluded his speech on Tuesday by saying “I will never apologize for America”—implicitly invoking his standard attack on Obama, one that fact-checkers long ago debunked.

We can imagine the Romney candidacy that might have been. But that’s not the Romney candidacy we got.

Update: Actually, the substance of Romney's speech was less impressive than I thought. Heather Hurlburt can tell you what I missed. Garance Franke-Ruta has a similar take. Yes, you should trust them on this—they know this subject better than I do.

Follow me on Twitter @CitizenCohn