Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

The audacity of Romney's Etch a Sketch

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
October 4, 2012 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Romney's effectiveness overshadowed his many flip-flops
  • He says GOP candidate broke with his more conservative positions, aimed for the center
  • President Obama failed to make an effective case for his policies, Avlon says
  • Avlon: Romney shone when he discussed the generational theft of deficits and debt

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- The Etch a Sketch was in full effect at the first presidential debate in Denver on Wednesday night.

Mitt Romney put forward a strong performance, transforming back into his 2002 Massachusetts moderate mold, a belated advocate of bipartisan leadership. It would have had a lot more impact if it hadn't contradicted almost every policy statement Romney has made on the campaign trail since he started running for president. This flip-flopping is a force of habit, but it was used to great effect, reflecting a campaign and a candidate finally focused on the general electorate.

John Avlon
John Avlon

President Obama, in turn, had an objectively weak debate. The president was more professor than preacher, a budget wonk getting lost in paragraphs of detail rather than concisely punching back. He fulfilled the political truism that incumbent presidents have bad first debates because they are comparatively unprepared and overburdened by budgets and other details of governing -- as President Reagan did in his disastrous first 1984 debate.

The trick of communicating policy is to distill it to memorable concise concepts. That happened far too rarely, and when it did, it seemed to be off the cuff, winning Obama points for authenticity but few for debate prep.

Watch the replay of the debate
Did you miss the first presidential debate? You can watch the full event online on CNN.com.

Opinion: Romney shakes up the race

The audacity of the Etch a Sketch was evident in the first 15 minutes of the debate, when Mitt Romney said, "I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans." It was an eye-popping assertion, almost as if the candidate hadn't been listening to his own campaign rhetoric -- especially if you'd been following Romney's campaign rhetoric for the past 18 months or more. (Remember that "Etch A Sketch" entered the campaign lexicon in March, when Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom signaled on CNN that Romney could transform his primary campaign message for the general election.)

The pattern continued with Romney asserting that after repealing Obamacare, he would advocate the implementation of his own individual mandate plan -- "And the best course for health care is to do what we did in my state" -- but it would be state by state, along a federalist model.

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney finish their debate in Denver on Wednesday, October 3. View behind-the-scene photos of debate preparations. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney finish their debate in Denver on Wednesday, October 3. View behind-the-scene photos of debate preparations.
The first presidential debate
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: The first presidential debate Photos: The first presidential debate
Separating truth from fiction at debate
U.S. voters overseas discuss Obama-Romney
Granholm 'high on democracy'

Romney did not hesitate to play the MediScare card -- the most discredited Democrat tactic against entitlement reform, but apparently acceptable if it is done by a Republican trying to win Florida. Happily, for hypocrisy watchers, this move also scored worst with the focus group of undecided voters conducted by CNN's Erin Burnett in Denver during the debate.

The litany of flip-flops increased when the candidates' policy positions were pushed for specifics. It was a necessary goal that wasn't aided by the too often unfocused moderation of veteran newsman Jim Lehrer, who did not need a 12th presidential debate under his belt.

Among the gaps was the question of whether Romney supports ending "too big to fail" -- which might mean breaking up the big banks, and/or restoring safeguards from the 1933 Glass-Steagall banking reform act, repealed in 1999 -- or simply repealing the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, which regulates Wall Street.

On that issue, as well as on Obamacare, it was not clear what Romney would put in place of the laws he plans to repeal.

Romney seemed to indicate he would end oil company subsidies if corporate rates were lowered enough -- that's news to Exxon, I'm guessing. Romney said Obama should have backed the Bowles-Simpson Commission's deficit reduction proposals (I agree), but did not back the recommendations of that panel himself.

Opinion: Romney wasn't stellar, but Obama fell short

He advocated a balanced deficit reduction plan but refused to raise any revenue -- and perhaps unwisely said he'd kill "Sesame Street" icon Big Bird in the process. His enthusiasm for budget cutting does not square with his commitment to increasing military spending to 4% of GDP.

Likewise, he wasn't pressed -- by Obama or Lehrer -- to specify the loophole closures which Romney said would make his 20% tax cuts revenue-neutral for top income earners.

Whenever Lehrer did try to assert himself as a moderator, Romney reflexively bristled -- he is not a man who likes being told he has to conform to other people's rules.

The president's strategic decision to try to find rhetorical common ground on policy at the outset came across as passive rather than conciliatory. His correct pressing on the fact that many of Romney's stated economic plans "do not add up" got lost in paragraphs rather than topic sentences.

To be fair, Obama had a few good lines -- dismissing Romney's economic plan by saying "math, common sense, and our history shows us that's not a recipe for job growth." His pushback on Wall Street reform was also memorable: "Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street? Because if you do, then Gov. Romney is your candidate. But that's not what I believe."

But Romney exceeded expectations and put forward a confident debate performance that was especially impressive given its disregard for his own past policy positions. Romney shone in the moments he discussed the generational theft of deficits and debt. In contrast, Obama did not come ready for combat, even in a Jed Bartlett egghead way.

Assessments of presidential debate performances tend to evolve over the next day, reflecting a combination of spin, fact-checking and conventional wisdom. This first debate will be subject to the same evolution, as partisans on both sides try furiously to spin the debate in their direction.

A flip-flop ad, contrasting past statements with debate statements, could be effective for either campaign. It's worth remembering that many swing voters who have lives were watching the high-stakes season-ending baseball games, instead of obsessively trolling Twitter for debate commentary.

Opinion: It wasn't just Romney who won

In the search for honest brokers -- patriots, not partisans -- we can only hope that the truth, ever elusive, will win out in the end, because we ultimately get the government we deserve.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT