The Etch-a-Sketch Debate

Robert Borosage

After last night’s tiresome presidential debate, President Obama’s supporters were replete with what Groucho Marks used to call “departee” – suggestions on what the president should have said. That’s a pretty good indicator about how the debate turned out.

The evening featured another remarkable shifting of shape, a new Etch-a-Sketch, by Mitt Romney. Romney, filled with earnest intensity, simply walked away from much of his campaign to date. Ignore the centerpiece of his platform – his plan to cut tax rates by 20%, eliminate the estate and gift tax, sustain the carried interest and capital gains tax breaks, paid for by eliminating unspecified loopholes. Simple addition and subtraction shows that ends up handing the wealthy a huge tax break that must be paid by the middle class paying more, most notably by losing deductions for their home mortgages or their health care.

Well, forget about it. Last night, Romney announced that he wouldn’t let taxes go up on anyone – or apparently down on anyone either. His bold idea, as the president said, is… well “never mind.”

And so it went, as Romney shamelessly squared every circle. Regulation is “essential,” but just not Dodd-Frank. The man from Bain, his campaign raking in dough from disgruntled Wall Street bankers, claimed to be opposed to Dodd-Frank because it was a boon to “New York City bankers.” Who knew?

And Romney’s for covering pre-existing conditions, letting kids stay on their parents’ health care plans, aiding seniors with the cost of prescription drugs and every other thing that polls well – just not for Obamacare, which he lied is a government takeover of health care. Mitt waxed eloquent on the benefits of competition among insurance companies in health care, proving that he can sell strychnine as an elixir. He’s for more teachers, and won’t cut education. He’s for those in trouble, and waxed rhapsodic on how America will always care for them. And so it went.

The president largely seemed detached, often listless in response to Romney’s shifting shapes. He called on Romney to supply a few details, questioned why all his plans are secret if they are so good.

But secret plans and skimpy details aren’t really what’s missing in Romney. What’s missing is any sense of shame when it comes to making a sale. He’ll pitch it flat, and pitch it sharp. He’ll paint it black and peddle it white. He’s a true conservative on Monday, a raging moderate today, an enlightened reformer on Wednesday. The president looked exasperated just trying to figure out what Romney Romney was peddling last night.

Romney’s stumbling campaign has gotten brutal reviews from the punditry. But last night demonstrated his strength. We know who he is. He believes in more tax breaks for the wealthy, less regulation on the corporations, more corporate trade deals, more money for the military, deep and debilitating cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and every domestic program. He is the tribune of the 1 percent, the champion of trickle down. The full catastrophe that got us into the mess we are in. But he’s prepared to abandon that agenda to sell it, and do so without even a glimmer of recognition that he forcefully argued the reverse last month.

Romney truly is the man from Bain. There he “harvested” profits from companies, by arguing with a straight face that taking on massive debt would benefit the company and its workers. Of course, Bain would pocket its piece up front, but Bain would assure executives and workers we’re all in this together. Right.

Now he’s pushing tax cuts and deregulation, but don’t worry. This is different than all previous plans. We’re all in this together. And if he can sell that, we’re all in big trouble.

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