Three weeks ago Mitt Romney was confronted with a secretly recorded video in which he dismissed President Obama's supporters--the now famous 47 percent--as congenital moochers who were addicted to government because they took no personal responsibility for themselves. Now he disavows the remarks. "I was completely wrong," he told Fox News on Thursday.
So, in the wake of his impressive debate performance and barely a month before the election, undecided voters are asked to play another round of "Where's Willard?" Is Mitt Romney the man in that secret video, who thinks ill of almost half the country he hopes to govern? Or is he the man we met in Colorado, an agile master of facts, policies, and economics who seems perfectly personable and maybe even friendly? Or is he someone else altogether?
The president's aides say, "Look at the secret video! There he is!" They want you to find the real Romney among the chafing dishes, clinking cutlery, and pricey suits. (A new Obama video says "He said it, he meant it.") Don't be fooled by the man on the debate stage, they say. That's just a mask. To make this case, the president must rely on a conceit that often gets applied to him. Conservatives have argued since 2004 that Obama's essential liberal desires are always roiling beneath a careful facade. These Republicans sit at the border on night watch, waiting for the moment when a window opens exposing Obama's inner radical. When they see it, they sound the alarm. Last week, that meant pointing to a video of Obama alternating the intonation of his voice during a speech in front of a predominantly black audience in 2007.
Romney's allies argue that the debate, not the video, revealed the real man. "He has finally shed the duct tape of the primaries," says GOP strategist Mike Murphy of Romney's debate performance. Romney took the stage more like the man who won the governorship in the blue state of Massachusetts than the man who won the GOP nomination.
But finding the essential Romney isn't so simple. The experiment itself is flawed. Voters are being asked to detect the truth from two different acts of artifice. One is a set-piece performance recorded by the television networks. The other was a set-piece performance captured by a member of the catering staff. Both are performances. Like all politicians, Romney was playing to the crowd in both cases. The question is not which one represents the true Romney, but which crowd will he play to when he's in office.
The essential character of Mitt Romney matters because we can never have a policy debate detailed enough to see exactly how his values will play out when the hard choices need to be made. Both candidates agree that the federal government must be rebalanced between the services people expect and the taxes they are willing to pay for those services. So who do you trust?
We can certainly try to look at policies. In the debate, Romney and Obama traded accusations about their Medicare ideas. Romney believes the free market can lower costs and retain quality. President Obama believes that costs can be cut through government nudges of the free market.
How do we know who has the better policy? We can look at studies and try to follow their reasoning. Sometimes there aren't enough studies or the candidates don't want to answer our follow-up questions. With Mitt Romney, in particular, on the questions of taxes and Medicare, his goals are so grand as to be either fantastical or untestable. If they don't work out as planned, his aides say, he'll tweak them. So even when we want to talk about policy, we find ourselves circling back to the same place: Trust me.
Since President Obama has been in office we've seen how "trust me" works in practice. Voters can make their own individual assessment of whether President Obama has kept their trust or not. They don't have to look for secret windows into his soul. But with Mitt Romney it's not so easy. It would be nice if we could force the challenger to offer a budget as a qualification for running for president (perhaps the Commission on Presidential Debates could get on that?), but until we do, the essential question is how will Mitt Romney behave when he's staring at the hard choices in the Oval Office. Will he be a moderate of the center-right as he appeared to be on the debate stage or will he be the ruthless realist of that video? It depends on which Willard Mitt Romney shows up.
More from Slate: