As many people have already pointed out, Mitt Romney's stated policy preferences last night differed greatly from Mitt Romney's stated policy preferences through the campaign to this point. What we saw last night was a Romney much more comfortable with the idea that tax revenue is an important part of keeping the government functioning at a healthy level, a Romney much less comfortable with the idea of cutting taxes for the rich, a Romney much more concerned with the notion of opportunity and fair play than with freeloaders ruining the economy. Romney even offered a vigorous defense of the basic idea of regulation.
Now, this change in course brought with it a fair number of controversial statements, but I'll leave that to the pros at FactCheck.org and similar fact-checking outlets to sort out. (Demos does not support or oppose either of the presidential candidates as a non-partisan organization.)
From a policy perspective, what's more interesting is what Romney's apparent shift to the center tells us about American views of redistribution. A few days ago I blogged about the complex politics of this subject, and over the summer I wrote about the rank unpopularity of Paul Ryan's budget plan. In both cases, I highlighted a basic truth of American politics: Americans are only against redistribution when you phrase the question in very specific sorts of ways. When it comes to actually cutting the programs they rely on, they sing a different tune.
This dynamic was on full display. In one sense, of course, Romney was doing what every politician does -- cater to the base during the primaries and early in the general, and then tacking toward the center as November approaches. But in another, his changes of heart point to the electoral non-viability of a good chunk of the conservative agenda.
It's one thing to tell sympathetic crowds that you're going to change Medicare into a voucher system, vastly shrink government, end "Obamacare," and the like. But when you're addressing the whole nation, including decided voters? The natural reflex is to temper these positions.
The best, clearest example was pre-existing conditions. Last night Romney said that "pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan." He more or less had to say it, because Americans hate the idea of being shut out of health insurance because of pre-existing conditions, which explains why the banning of this practice is one of the more popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act. And yet, sure enough, today his campaign is "clarifying" things: No, under a Romney presidency, it would be up to the states to write laws preventing this practice.
It's a classic example of rhetoric that works in the comfy confines of the world of conservative ideas, but which falls flat when faced with the overall preferences of Americans as a whole. And there are plenty of others.