New York Times political writer Matt Bai's Thursday morning Caucus post on "Paul Ryan’s Debate Challenge " laid out a novel defense of Obama regarding last week's presidential debate, widely seen as a tactical triumph for the Romney campaign: President Obama was left "at a loss for words" after Romney's "frantic dash to the center" on taxes.
Bai, whose upcoming Sunday Magazine story written before the debate about "timid, error-prone Mitt" was eclipsed before even making it into print, contributed his usual condescending anti-GOP nomenclature.
Long before he was anointed Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul D. Ryan was the young hero of Washington’s supply-side crowd. And so it will be interesting to see how Mr. Ryan, in his debate with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Thursday, plans to navigate between his running mate’s latest ideological turn, on one hand, and the orthodoxy of economic conservatives on the other.
In a late and frantic dash to the center, Mr. Romney argued for the first time in last week’s debate that his plan to scale back income tax rates for the wealthy didn’t really add up to a tax cut. This surprising parry seemed to leave the president at a loss for words, as if Mr. Romney had just asserted that nuclear warheads weren’t actually weapons.
Afterward, most of the commentary centered on the immediate question of whether Mr. Romney’s plan would add some $5 trillion to the deficit, as Mr. Obama claimed, or whether Mr. Romney could make the plan “revenue-neutral.” But Mr. Romney’s argument was remarkable for larger, philosophical reasons, and it presents something of a dilemma for Mr. Ryan as he considers his own debate strategy.
Bai noted how Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale bombed in 1984 by "leveling" with the American people on raising taxes, and that "Democrats have been on the defensive over taxes" ever since. But perhaps not anymore:
In Denver, however, it was the Republican who found himself backing away from party orthodoxy. Here was Mr. Romney fleeing from the suggestion that he supported tax cuts for the wealthy, when by any reasonable definition he did. And here was the Democratic president, insisting that he was against those same tax cuts, even though he could fairly have taken credit for having extended them during his term.
This reversal by itself should bother the economic conservatives who believe that ever-lower taxes are a prerequisite for growth. But Mr. Romney didn’t simply distance himself from conservatives on the politics of taxation. By any literal reading of what he said, Mr. Romney broke with conservatives on the substance of their argument, too.
Mr. Ryan will almost certainly be asked to elaborate on the tax plan at Thursday’s debate. And the question is whether he can get fully behind Mr. Romney’s pronouncements about not lowering taxes on the rich and holding the line on federal revenue, or whether he will try to subtly walk it back, so as not to tarnish his brand as the keeper of the conservative faith.
The answer may tell us something about whether Mr. Ryan is thinking only about this election, or whether he also has his mind on carrying the conservative mantle for years to come.