What we will see tonight in the big debate is the newest image of Mitt Romney on his campaign’s human Etch A Sketch.
Surely you remember when one of Romney’s aides called the candidate an Etch A Sketch. The aide explained that Mitt, in the way of the child’s toy, would present an image in the primary and then shake that one clear and redraw afresh for the general election.
What Romney was doing in his most recent incarnation wasn’t working. Simply blaming President Obama for George W. Bush’s collapsed economy and promising to re-impose George W.’s presidency of reduced taxes and lax regulation to make life wonderful again—that was no good.
Bill Clinton got hold of that image on the Etch A Sketch at the Democratic National Convention and stomped the entire device flat.
Romney has fallen behind by five to seven points in Ohio and by two to four points in Florida. As you know, those states will decide the presidency. The rest of us are just watching.
So tonight Obama will look across the stage at the University of Denver and see Mitt 3.
First there was primary Mitt. Then there was general-election Mitt. Now there is new general-election Mitt.
Actually, if we go back to when Romney first ran for president in 2008, this would be Mitt 5. If we go back to when Romney was governor of Massachusetts, this would be Mitt 7 or Mitt 8.
Or Mitt Ad nauseam. Maybe that’s it.
Once upon a time there was a version of Mitt running as a liberal for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. In a debate, the late Ted Kennedy assessed the abortion rhetoric coming from Romney and said that Mitt was neither pro-choice nor anti-choice, but “multiple choice.”
For most everything Romney now says, there is a video contradiction.
While it’s true that he can shake away his image on his Etch A Sketch, it’s also true that some wiseacre almost assuredly will have taken and saved a digital recording of the image shaken away.
On “60 Minutes” the other night, for example, Romney said, as if approvingly, that we essentially had universal health care in America already. That’s because, he said, some poor sap having a heart attack can get an ambulance sent for him and get attention at the emergency room.
Never mind the heartlessness and absurdity of telling a man that he need only confront death to get last-gasp defibrillation courtesy of the taxpayers and the already-insured.
More to the point: Somebody found a clip from 2007 in which Romney was lamenting the very thing he was now approving.
He said then: More and more people are either getting on Medicare or on Medicaid or receiving uninsured and uncompensated care at emergency rooms on the tabs of the rest us. “If that’s not socialized medicine, I don’t know what it is,” he said.
So is that no longer socialized medicine? Or does Mitt now like socialized medicine?
Who knows? Who can say?
Signals for tonight are that the newest Mitt will hit Obama freshly in this way: Shaking away his disparagement of half of Americans as moochers who are unreachable by his personal-responsibility policies, Romney will say that it actually is he, not Obama, who wants to cut taxes for the middle class and raise taxes on high incomes.
He will say, furthermore, that Obama already has raised taxes outrageously on the middle class by mandating that everyone buy health insurance.
That is to say Mitt is going to try on a populist mask nearly a month before Halloween.
So let’s look behind the shaken Etch A Sketch.
First, there’s an old image way back there of Mitt imposing the same . . . uh, tax, if you please. It was when he was governor of Massachusetts.
Second, Mitt’s assertion that he will cut taxes for the middle class is based on the fact that—in doubling-down on trickle-down—he wants to cut income tax rates across the board for everyone. And that, naturally, accrues to the greatest cash benefit of already-undertaxed multi-millionaires such as himself.
Third, Mitt claims he will put a fair tax burden back on higher-income persons by closing loopholes and eliminating tax exemptions and deductions and general favors in the tax code. But he refuses to provide the least specific—even one—about what he is talking about.
Is he going to try to take way your home mortgage interest deduction?
He says the campaign is no time to get laden with the devilish details, but only with the angelic policy.
His position is that a campaign shouldn’t get bogged down in divisive specifics that ought to be deferred to congressional sausage-making after the election. But a candidate hardly deserves credit now for brave policy to come, especially when he cowers from brave policy now.
Essentially, he is asking Americans to trust his over-worked Etch A Sketch.
Anyway, the way to build support for brave policy is to put it on the table in the campaign and, by then winning, assert a credible mandate for it. By Romney’s way, he’ll have no constituency at all for whatever specific he might propose, assuming he ever intends actually to propose one.
Fourth, and finally, Romney’s assertion that the individual health insurance mandate is a tax is contradicted directly and fully by his campaign’s assertion only months ago that it was not a tax. And it’s contradicted by Romney’s oops moment of boomeranged spontaneity only days ago from the stump.
Mitt alleged in that incident that the one thing Obama would do in a second term that he hadn’t done in the first is . . . drum roll, please—raise taxes.
Got it? Romney said days ago that Obama didn’t raise taxes in the first term, but, by golly, he would sure-enough raise them in the second. And now he says in a new commercial, and likely will say in the debate tonight, that Obama indeed raised taxes in the first term, and by record amounts.
Here’s the thing: Shaking the Etch A Sketch doesn’t change history or truth. It only changes the momentary re-invention.
Even if you agree with Dirty Harry that Obama is an empty chair, you have to admit that an empty chair is a more knowable and reliable image than a human eraser.
John Brummett’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com.