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The Unpatronizing Waffler: Romney’s Debate Strength and Weakness

There has been far, far too much said and written in anticipation of the first presidential debate. If you asked me, we’d just leave the job of previewing these things to James Fallows, whose exhaustive scouting reports on the candidates’ debating skills have become essential reading. But there are two points about Mitt Romney's debating style that bear emphasizing more before the Wednesday night festivities—one that works in his favor, and one that does not.

The first is that Romney is arguably at his best in debates. Now, he may be even better in a corporate boardroom, but we don’t get to see him there. Of the chances that the public gets to observe him, debates put him in his best light. Why is that? Because, I would argue, he is amongst perceived peers. It is no secret that Romney does not do well mixing with the hoi polloi—the 47 percent, the 99 percent, however you want to define the great unwashed. He tells women they don't have their makeup on yet (3:00 mark), he startles moribund elderly people in cafes, he lets the dawgs out, he insults local bakeries’ products, he declaims about cheesy grits (0:55 mark), he makes fun of people’s rain ponchos (2:15 mark), he pretends to understand their economic anxiety. Most of all, he condescends. This was what struck me most watching Romney on the stump in the early primaries way back last winter—his patronizing attempts to connect with the average folk in average places, crystallized in his saccharine rendering, at every campaign stop, of verses of “America the Beautiful.”

In debates, Romney loses this affect. He snaps to attention and he’s firing on all cylinders, because he feels challenged: put simply, he is amongst his fellow 1 percenters, where he feels most comfortable, and he wants to show his wits and win the exchange. He is back in the Bain board room or the governor’s cabinet room in Boston, sparring with other joint business-law degree holders. He is George Romney’s son, striving to prove himself. With regular folks, he cannot strive, he must lower himself, and it is painful for him and painful for us to behold. In the debates, he doesn’t have to pretend. He can be what he was raised to be: smart, handsome Mitt, standing tall, standing up for himself and his family.* This comes across particularly in his exchanges with the moderators. With the candidates, there was still occasional awkwardness—not surprisingly, given how inferior they are to him. (Think of the $10,000 bet offer to hapless Rick Perry.) But with the moderators, Romney is sharp-witted and collegial—see, for instance, this clip of him pushing back at George Stephanopoulos’ question about birth control at the 2012 debate in New Hampshire. A-list moderators are people who are plausibly of the same universe as he is.** They make him think, as Barack Obama will, and when he’s thinking hard, he doesn’t have time or need to patronize. And this makes him relatively more appealing.

This is the Romney strength that came through to me in the primary debates. The weakness is something that did not come through in those debates, or at least not nearly as much as it will in these three debates if Barack Obama is even moderately adept. It’s something I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about in the debate previews: the slalom course of Romney’s positions. It was tricky enough for Romney to have to tack to the right for all those primary debates in 2007 and 2008, and again last year and early this year—to talk about doubling Guantanamo, self-deporting immigrants, and so on. But at least that was all in one direction—there was a certain consistency to the shift. Now? The flags and gates are scattered all over the slope. No, Romney never did the full Etch-a-Sketch we were expecting, but he has started to shift here and there, saying a few nice things about Romneycare, saying he won’t deport young Dream Act” immigrants, saying he may ease up on the tax cuts for the rich. But as often as not he’ll tack right back the next day in front of a different audience. Obama needs to be able to capitalize on this confusion, seek it out, tangle Romney up for all it’s worth. No, this has not been the focus of the Obama campaign—it made a conscious decision early on to cast Romney as extreme and out of touch, rather than a mere flip-flopper, a strategy that was validated by the pick of Paul Ryan and the “47 percent” video. But that doesn’t mean Obama shouldn't exploit it, with a wry jab or two—not to press a thematic argument against Romney, but simply to scramble him, and jar him out of the confident mode he’ll be in by virtue of not having to pretend to connect with the actual flesh and blood folks of Council Bluffs.

*Ann Romney just buttressed this notion of the debates allowing Mitt to revert to being the Romney scion: she told CNN that every time her husband arrives on the debate stage, he writes “Dad” on the note pad in front of him.

**Commenter Thunderroad makes an important related point: Romney does well in debates because they are a controlled environment. There are rules and time limits—and we know what happens when Romney thinks the rules aren’t being followed: “Anderson?”

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis