Editorial Board

The Real (Moderate) Mitt Romney Finally Stands Up

Mitt Romney, believing with good reason that he has the Republican nomination sewn up (or at least that if anything gets in the way at this point, it will be too bizarre to plan for), has turned from attacks on his fellow Republican contenders to concentrate on President Barack Obama.

This is the campaign’s Etch A Sketch moment: time to shake the slate clean of its hard-right positions and start again. In other words: Flip now, flop later. With Romney’s primary victories yesterday in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia, now it’s later.

On Friday in Appleton, Wisconsin, Romney delivered what is probably Version 1.0 of what will become his standard stump speech. It provides some clues to Romney’s true nature.

Romney predicts, as if he were a weatherman who is just reporting the storm, that “this campaign will produce a deafening cacophony of charges and countercharges.” That’s probably true, though he theoretically has some say in the matter. His campaign can be as high-minded as he would like. And the speech did contain bits of statesmanlike yin-yangery. Consider: “President Obama did not cause the recession, but he most certainly failed to lead the recovery.” Or: “Regulations are necessary, but they must be continuously updated, streamlined and modernized.”

Acknowledgments that Obama did not cause the recession and that regulations are sometimes necessary are welcome. They also put Romney at the far left of his party.

Romney criticizes Obama for saying he wants to “transform this nation,” whereas he, Romney, wants “to restore the values of economic freedom, opportunity and small government that have made this nation the leader it is.”

Small government made this nation great? Uh, World War II? Social Security? The Civil Rights Act? There are exceptions (the Transportation Security Administration, for example), but many of America’s greatest moments involved an expansion of government, not a shrinking of it.

Polls and politicians are always claiming that Americans are fed up and want the country to change directions in some fundamental way. But Romney, or his advisers, is smart enough to realize that this is just a national tic. People really don’t want fundamental change. “Transform” is an ominous word. “Restore” is nice and soothing.

Obama, Romney says, “was elected not on the strength of a compelling record but a compelling personality and story.” Interestingly, Romney says that the differences between the candidates can be explained by “our life experiences.” Is he actually going to make the case that growing up in a stable, affluent suburban family, with a father who was head of an auto company and later governor of Michigan, is a more useful life experience than Obama’s?

Yes, he is. Obama was a community organizer. “His desire to help others could not be more admirable, but …" Well, you know, this helping others stuff can be taken too far. Says Romney, who ran the private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC: “Apple Computer and Microsoft weren’t started to save the world and neither were General Motors or Alcoa. Nor were some of the companies I helped start like Staples or The Sports Authority. … They became great commercial ventures, which is another way of saying they made a lot of money.”

Romney is right that free market capitalism has done more for the U.S. (and the world) than any do-good organization. Nevertheless, it’s a brave politician who builds his campaign around the idea that graduating from Harvard Law School and going off to serve the poor in Chicago is less admirable than graduating from Harvard Law School and going off to advise big corporations at a consulting firm.

Regarding the economy, Romney says that Obama’s stimulus program was a failure because it “protected the government, not the people,” whatever that means. Bloomberg Government calculates that Romney’s proposed federal budget will actually run up a larger debt than Obama’s. That is because it includes a large tax cut for everybody, with no compensating spending cuts.

Romney is, at this point, far too identified as a flip-flopper to do much actual flip-flopping. He’s stuck with the positions he had on all the right-wing hot-button issues when the music stopped. But, as this Wisconsin speech demonstrates, you can Etch A Sketch a new you without getting into all that.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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