A sour fog settled over the Republican Party during the primary season. Several plausible candidates decided not to run for president, and the whole conversation ended up tainted by various political circus acts.
The GOP did its best to appear unattractive. It had trouble talking the language of compassion. It seemed to regard reasonable political compromise as an act of dishonor. It offered little for struggling Americans except that government would leave them alone.
The Obama campaign took advantage. President Barack Obama could have run against Mitt Romney by calling him a flip-flopper. Instead, the president tapped into the GOP gestalt and accused him of being a soulless ideologue or the tool of ideologues. Judging by how the president was prepared for Wednesday's debate, Obama's staff apparently believed that that charge was actually true.
But, on Wednesday night, Romney finally emerged from the fog. He broke with the stereotypes of his party and, at long last, began the process of offering a more authentic version of himself.
Far from being a lackey to the rich, Romney vowed that rich people will not see tax bills go down under a Romney administration. He attacked Obama for giving a "kiss to New York banks." Instead, he focused relentlessly on job creation for the middle class, which, he noted, has seen incomes fall by $4,300 under this president while gas prices have doubled and health care costs have surged.
Far from being an individualistic, social Darwinist, Romney spoke comfortably about compassion and shared destinies: "We're a nation that believes that we're all children of the same God, and we care for those that have difficulties, those that are elderly and have problems and challenges, those that are disabled."
Far from wanting to eviscerate government and railing about government dependency, Romney talked about how to make government programs work better. "I'm not going to cut education funding," he vowed. He praised government job-training efforts and said he wanted to consolidate them. He lamented that $90 billion has been shipped to energy corporations, which could have paid for 2 million teachers.
Far from being a pitchfork-wielding populist who wants to raze Washington, Romney said he would work with the people he finds there. "We have to work on a collaborative basis, not because we're going to compromise our principle but because there is common ground." He bragged that in his old job as governor, he met with Democrats every week. He boasted about his bipartisan health care bill. He praised the (semimythical) friendship between Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill.
Far from being an unthinking deregulator, Romney declared, "Regulation is essential. ... I mean, you have to have regulations so that you can have an economy work." Instead of championing unfettered capitalism, he said he wanted predictable and workable rules. He criticized housing regulations that can't give a clear idea of what a qualified mortgage is. He criticized financial regulations that favor big banks over small ones.
Romney didn't describe a comprehensive governing philosophy but he gave us a hint of a strong center-right pragmatic approach. It starts with 1986-style tax reform and Wyden-Ryan Medicare reform and then offers a glimpse of experimental pragmatism on most everything else.
Yes, it's true. Romney's tax numbers don't add up. Yes, there's a lot of budgetary flimflam. No, Romney still doesn't have an easy answer to wage stagnation (neither does Obama). But Romney's debate performance signals the return of Governor Mitt. Democrats call it hypocrisy; I call it progress.
You could conceivably build a majority coalition around this framework, winning over more working-class women and some Hispanic voters. The crucial test will be whether Romney can develop, brand and sell this approach over the campaign's final month.
Most important, Romney did something no other mainstream Republican has had the guts to do. Either out of conviction or political desperation, he broke with Tea Party orthodoxy and began to redefine the Republican identity. And, having taken this step, he's broken the spell. Conservatives loved it! They loved that it was effective, and it was effective because Romney could more authentically be the man who (I think) he truly is.
Now it's the Obama campaign that has problems to solve. Politically, the president will have to go back to portraying Romney as a flip-flopper instead of an ideologue. Substantively, Obama will have to kindle new passion. So far, he's seemed driven by the negative passion of stopping Republican extremism. He'll have to develop a positive passion for something he actually wants to do.
I gave Obama better reviews than most pundits did Wednesday night, but his closing statement was as bad as any I've ever heard. If he can't come up with a two-minute argument for why he should be president again, the former Mr. Audacity might still lose to the former Mr. Right Winger.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.