Matt Miller - The Archives
The CEO vs. the professor
The Washington Post, September 21, 2011

Thursday night's Republican debate may confirm that the president has bigger things to worry about than whether women at the White House feel unappreciated.

That's because Mitt Romney has quietly become a much more formidable candidate. If he gets the GOP nod, 2012 may feel like a showdown between the CEO and the professor. Guess who voters will pick with 9 percent unemployment?

I've long had mixed feelings about Romney. On the one hand, his brains, business chops and government experience (including that bipartisan universal health-care reform in Massachusetts) make him instantly credible in the chair. His straight-from-central-casting looks don't hurt either. Even my mother-in-law thinks he's dreamy.

But Romney's serial flip-flops and abject pandering to the right have made him seem like a soulless striver who'll bend into whatever pretzel is required to win. I've never met Romney, but my bottom line has always been that there must be an interesting leader inside there somewhere who became a slave to ambition in ways that can warp a man.

And yet. Lost in the flaps over Michelle Bachmann's vaccine-bashing and Rick Perry's Ponzi woes was any appreciation of how crisp and effective Romney has become in public argument. It's worth rewinding the tape from last week's Tea Party debate.

"But the real question is: Does Governor Perry continue to believe that Social Security should not be a federal program, that it's unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states, or is he going to retreat from that view?"

In other words: Is my opponent an extremist who'd lead the party to ruin or a weasel who can't stand by his guns?

On the Texas economy: "I think Governor Perry would agree with me that if you're dealt four aces, that doesn't make you necessarily a great poker player." Earlier Romney had sounded the same note, saying Perry surely wouldn't take credit for Texas for having (1) no income tax; (2) lax union protections; (3) oil and gas in the ground; and (4) a Republican legislature. That would be like Al Gore taking credit for inventing the Internet, he joked.

Romney even unveiled a similar boom-boom-boom on how his state health reform differed from Obama's.

"If you think what we did in Massachusetts and what President Obama did are the same, boy, take a closer look, because, number one, he raised taxes $500 billion, and helped slow down the U.S. economy by doing it. We didn't raise taxes.

"He cut Medicare by $500 billion. This is a Democrat president. The liberal, so to speak, cut Medicare...

"We dealt with the people in our state that were uninsured, some nine percent. His bill deals with 100 percent of the people.

"He puts in place a panel that ultimately is going to tell people what kind of care they're going to have. We didn't do anything like that... The people of Massachusetts favored our plan by three to one."

Now, there's a bunch of malarkey in there that I'll parse another time. But I have to hand it to Romney: His evolving spiel had me thinking he may yet find a way out of his "I was the model for Obamacare" chains. It will be a Houdini-worthy achievement if he pulls it off.

GOP message maven Stuart Stevens has helped Romney hone his case, but the candidate on the stage still has to deliver the goods. This isn't shallow theater criticism; effective communication may be the most important part of the modern presidency. Coming from behind against Perry is forcing Romney to reach a new level of his game.

That doesn't mean Romney can't be beaten. Mike Huckabee's 2008 quip that "Romney looks like the guy who fired you" still stings deliciously. And on policy, Romney is peddling charades galore. We can't hold federal spending to 20 percent of gross domestic product as the boomers age, as Romney pledges, when his hero Ronald Reagan spent 22 percent back when the country was much younger. For similar reasons of math and demographics, the idea that taxes won't have to rise once the economy is back on track is also a fraud.

But this is stuff that only wonks like me will harp on. If he's standing on the debate stage across from the president next fall, Romney will be the "turnaround guy" who stood down Rick Perry to defend Social Security.

He'll pummel Obama for "25 million Americans who want full-time work and can't find it"—for "racking up more debt than all previous presidents combined"—for "taking federal spending to levels never before imagined"—and for "presiding over the first-ever downgrade of America's credit rating." By then, the president may also, in Romney's telling, "have stood by helplessly while Europe imploded, plunging us into recession" once more. "He even let the post office go bust! And now Barack Obama says 'give me four more years to finish the job?'"

Obviously this won't be a full or fair picture. But if it's a two-man race next year (still a big if, in my view), will the professor's attempt to paint Romney as a quirky, out of touch private equity villain be enough to trump the CEO's business plan in the eyes of anxious swing voters?