Mitt Romney—The Candidate Who You Hope Is Lying

Mitt Romney rides his bus to a campaign rally at Avon Lake High School on Oct. 29, 2012 in Avon Lake, Ohio

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

After the first debate, many of the liberals who I know were very upset that the Obama campaign wasn’t more aggressive in labeling Mitt Romney a liar. I think today’s David Brooks column helps illustrate why Team Obama is a bit wary of that tactic, namely that the best case for Romney is that his campaign is largely bullshit. Brooks argues that “Romney’s shape-shifting nature would induce him to govern as a center-right moderate” if he wins, inducing him to abandon his main policy commitments on both taxes and spending.

Indeed perhaps the signal illustration of how much Romney benefits from his reputation for dishonesty is that Brooks doesn’t so much as mention Romney’s absurd promise to launch an economically destruction trade war with China.

If Sherrod Brown were running for president on Romney’s currency manipulation platform, center-right commentators would be losing their shit. When Romney does it, the assumption is that he doesn’t mean what he’s saying. In a sense I think even Romney’s deeply dishonest ad pretending that Jeep is shifting production to China reinforces the idea that there’s a dual-track message here. For the sake of voters in Ohio and Wisconsin, Romney is running as a retrograde protectionist. But elites are supposed to know he doesn’t mean what he’s saying. The fact that his protectionist ads are so fast and loose with the truth is, among other things, a way of signaling that he’s just screwing around.

All that said, the issue with running as a tabula rasa is that we end up disagreeing what the good case is. My version of the Fantasy Romney scenario is that upon taking office he comes out of the closet as a Keynesian and ditches all this deficit talk. Brooks’ version is the exact opposite. He wants Romney to double down on austerity and embrace tax hikes as an incentive to get Democrats on board for spending cuts. I’m hoping for the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan, Brooks is hoping for the Second Coming of David Cameron. But which course would Romney actually pursue? I have no idea. And we should always take seriously the possibility that he’ll actually govern the way he says he wants to govern—that Senate Democrats will panic (keep in mind that a Democratic majority would rest on members from Alaska, Arkansas, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, West Virginia, etc.) and stringent tax and spending cuts will pass in a giant early reconciliation package.