After Wednesday night's debates, the pundits attacked. Sensing a potential tightening of the race ahead, they unequivocally gave Governor Romney a win in the first debate. While it was clear that the president was not as aggressive in countering Romney's assertions about his plan for the economy, and focus groups gave a better grade to the governor, it is also hard to look past the fact that a tightening race means more attention from those very same pundits for the next four weeks.
But coming into the debate, the big knock on Governor Romney was that he was out of touch with the average American -- that he didn't understand the problems of the middle class and he didn't care much about the problems of those who aspired to be a part of the middle class. There are two important components to this notion: one is that Governor Romney is stiff, robotic, aloof, awkward and not personable. Part of that image clearly has to do with Romney's enormous wealth -- no downtrodden American working hard to make ends meet can relate to someone with offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands, or someone whose wife owns "a couple of Cadillacs," or someone who can be "unemployed" and pull in a cool $20 million a year. Nor is it fair to expect Governor Romney to relate to someone who lives his or her life paycheck to paycheck. That's the image of the out-of-touch Romney that you have to admit he worked hard to dispel in the first debate -- and he certainly made some inroads, at least when it comes to perception.
But there's another important component to the perceived out-of-touch Romney, and that component is much more important. From his 47 percent comments, to his plan to voucherize Medicare, to his tax cuts for the wealthy to his total flip-flop on a health care bill that gave 32 million Americans health insurance, the idea that Mitt Romney is out of touch with average Americans is not just perception when it comes to actual policy -- it's the reality.
Wednesday night, he doubled down on many of these policies. Maybe he looked more like an average guy while he did it, but he made it clear that he would turn Medicare into a voucher program -- a dangerous and irresponsible attack on one of our most important social safety net programs. He also made it clear that he would not, under any circumstances, entertain the idea that revenue increases should be a part of an overarching plan to cut the deficit. For someone who sounded so sincere and real when he talked about not mortgaging the future for the next generation, as a matter of policy, there's no bigger "screw you" to our children and our children's children than trying to solve the deficit problem by only cutting spending for vital programs like education, infrastructure and social safety net programs.
Debates are theater. Ever since the first televised debate in 1960, when viewers on TV gave the edge to John Kennedy over a recently-ill Richard Nixon in part because he looked much better, we know winners and losers are chosen based largely on body language, eye contact, reaction shots, tone and cadence. Governor Romney certainly exceeded expectations here. He seemed more likeable than he has in months on the campaign trail.
However, what matters more when we try to gauge what kind of president Governor Romney would be is the substance -- the issues. Where does he stand on issues that matter to the average American? On many of those issues he spewed bold-faced lies to try to dupe middle class Americans; to Obama's great discredit, he let Romney off relatively unscathed. Just to name a few of these lies:
"I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don't have a tax cut of a scale that you're talking about." Not according to the Tax Policy Center, whose analysis shows Romney's plan would reduce federal revenue $480 billion in 2015. This amounts to $5 trillion over the decade.
"I like the way we did it [health care] in Massachusetts... What were some differences? We didn't raise taxes." Well, he raised "fees" instead of calling them taxes. Also, the federal government paid for nearly half of his health care reforms -- sounds like quite a government handout.
"Preexisting conditions are covered under my plan." This isn't true for people with preexisting conditions who don't have continuous insurance now.
"If the president's reelected you'll see dramatic cuts to our military." This is in reference to the sequester, which Paul Ryan supported. President Obama has asked Congress to craft a deal to avoid sequester.
"My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people." Even though he's said this is how he would do it, there are not enough deductions in the tax code that primarily benefit rich people to make his math work.
Beyond these false claims, on other issues like Medicare, he didn't hide from the truth, which is that a Romney presidency would mean a severe weakening of the social safety net (why pander to that 47 percent anyways?)
The knock on him coming in was that he was out of touch with average Americans -- that he didn't understand what those in the middle class really need to thrive in this country. It isn't that he doesn't understand what they need, it's that it just isn't his priority to give it to them.
Maybe he was a little bit more likable when he delivered it on Wednesday night, but here's the bad news -- Romney still favors the ultra wealthy who don't need any more help. He still wants a return to the economic policies that got us in this mess in the first place. The country can't afford that; the middle class can't afford that.
The polls may tighten in the next few weeks (much to the pundits' glee), but don't let Mitt 2.0 fool you -- he's still the same old Mitt we saw taking hard right turn after hard right turn in the primaries. And it's that Mitt who is still clearly out of touch with the average American.