(The Root) — President Barack Obama got the switch from Mitt Romney, who, until their encounter at last night's debate, had baited his hook as a conservative during 23 primary debates with GOP opponents campaigning to his right and under the swoon of the Tea Party.
Working mightily during the primary to obscure his moderate record as the 70th governor of Massachusetts, Romney several times touted the line, "I've spent my entire career in the private sector."
Debating the moderate president he seeks to replace, however, Gov. Romney boldly discussed his lone public-sector job. And while GOP opponents had driven him into defilade by bringing up his "mandated health care" in Massachusetts, President Obama found him aggressive on the subject — expansive, even.
"The best course for health care is to do what we did in my state," Romney volunteered. "Craft a plan at the state level that fits the needs of the state … then focus on getting the costs down for people." Hesitant all night in engaging his opponent, Obama reminded us that his Affordable Care Act — which, if elected, Romney promises to dismantle — is essentially the one Romney had just bragged about.
"The irony is that we've seen ['Obamacare'] work really well in Massachusetts, because Governor Romney did a good thing, working with Democrats in the state to set up what is essentially the identical model, and as a consequence people are covered there. It hasn't destroyed jobs. And as a consequence, we now have a system in which we have the opportunity to start bringing down costs, as opposed to just leaving millions of people out in the cold," the president said.
"I like the way we did it in Massachusetts," Romney boasted, in a manner that he didn't dare risk in the presence, say, of Newt Gingrich during the GOP primaries.
After quibbling about a federal health care board and the president's inability to get Republicans' support, Romney then cherry-picked two nonconservative aspects of "Obamacare" that he would preserve: retention of adult offspring on their parents' insurance policies and coverage for pre-existing conditions — both key aspects of Obama's plan.
What unfolded before our very eyes onstage at Denver's Magness Arena last night was a retrofitted Mitt Romney freed of all but the carry-on baggage of the hard-eyed, Tea Party-dominated Republican Party. He held to shuttering PBS and giving Big Bird a pink slip: "I'm gonna stop the subsidy to PBS," he told moderator Jim Lehrer — of PBS. "I like Big Bird. I actually like you, too," he added, offering a glimpse of the Bain Capital executive who "likes being able to fire people."
However, unlike the Republican he portrayed in the primaries, Romney swung uncharacteristically straight at Wall Street. "Regulation is essential," he said in terms that might rattle his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (D-Wis.), and the Tea Party. "You can't have a free market work if you don't have regulations."
This bait and switch performance was signaled in March by Romney's key strategist Eric Fehrnstrom when CNN asked whether his candidate's hard-core conservative positions taken during the primary would hurt him with moderates in the campaign against Obama.
"Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign," Fehrnstrom said. "Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again." That shaking you heard from the University of Denver campus last night was the sound of the Romney Etch A Sketch.
This scheme had been the initial GOP plan of those who considered the moderate Romney to be the best matchup with Obama. Poleaxing Romney into submission during the primary, however, his GOP opponents virtually silenced him on his record as Massachusetts governor. And in a brilliant campaign of summer attack ads, Team Obama took away his "vulture" years at Bain Capital as a viable campaign issue.
Consequently, naked as a cock robin after winning the GOP nomination, Romney made the desperate Hail Mary move once considered unthinkable: he named tea-bagger Paul Ryan as his running mate. Such virtuosity comes naturally to a missionary like Romney, who spent all those years of field service grappling with recalcitrant, heathen opposition.
The big question before the first of three presidential debates last night was whether Romney would stick with the hard-right, Paul Ryan-conservative posture or reach for the Etch A Sketch. Seemingly caught off guard initially, President Obama recovered upon perceiving Romney moonwalking away from his previously vaunted plan for the rich: "I'm not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut," Romney said last night.
"Now," a frustrated Obama uttered, "he is saying that his big, bold idea is 'never mind.' "
This zinger came during a sluggish, though substantive, night for the president, as a reading of the script, as opposed to a TV viewing, will indicate. After a few deft wobbles by Romney, Obama caught on to the bait and switch. The key question now, and for the remaining 33 days of the campaign, is whether the American voters will accept the Etch A Sketch image of 65-year-old Willard Mitt Romney.
Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and frequent contributor to The Root.