Whither The Choice Election?

As barefaced as it was I honestly don’t think Mitt Romney’s live-action Etch-a-Sketching Wednesday night should have come as such a big surprise. Yes, that’s easy to say with the benefit of hindsight. But this wasn’t a stump speech to base Republicans, it was his great entree to the full spectrum of voters, most of whom like President Obama pretty well.

What is a big surprise to me — and what I think has the real potential to shake up the nature of the campaign — is how hungrily all the conservatives who’d crapped on Romney for being a moderate squish lapped up all that mushy centrism.

Think about it.Romney talked up Romneycare, disavowed the central tent pole of his tax plan, downplayed his radical Medicare plan, claimed he wouldn’t reduce education spending, lauded key parts of the Wall Street reform law, and was silent about every potential budget cut except his bold plan to eliminate public broadcasting subsidies. And today his typically absolutist base couldn’t be happier.

That’s perhaps an indication that at this point conservatives care more about victory than purity. But if they don’t yank back against his lurch to the center — if they’ve given up on “housebreaking” him — then it’s hard to see how this remains the choice election that Obama, and for good measure Paul Ryan, want it to be.

It’s hard to fathom that a contest billed — accurately in my view — as the greatest contrast in a generation could fundamentally change character a month before the election. But it could.

Now I think a few things could re-strike the contrast. Some of them even seem likely. Maybe conservatives will rein Romney in. Maybe the next debate moderator will put Romney on the spot about women’s issues, immigration or gay rights. Maybe the press will seize the Etch-a-Sketch. Maybe Obama will punch at Romney’s weak spots — Swiss bank account, 47 percent, outsourcing — in a way he wasn’t willing to last night.

But otherwise the choice election strategy Chicago wants — using Romney’s career and his primary campaign positions to tear him down — will grow out of step and less credible.

It’s a little strange that Obama wasn’t better prepared for Romney to don a gentler facade. But what Romney did went beyond artifice, and it’s hard to fathom a handy riposte to Romney disavowing huge parts of his agenda.