President Obama's final debate with Mitt Romney wasn't nearly as fascinating as the debate that Romney appeared to be having with himself.
With a smiling smoothness that even would amaze Zelig, the hero of Woody Allen's movie about a human chameleon, Obama's Republican challenger transformed in their final presidential debate into an even kindlier, gentler version of the Moderate Mitt he presented in the first two.
With foreign policy as the topic, Romney slid even further away in this debate from the self-described “severely conservative” posture he eagerly embraced during his party's primaries. This time he cozied up so ideologically close to Obama that you could hardly slide a paper ballot in between them.
He ballyhooed the need to arm the Syrian resistance fighters, for example, but ultimately agreed with the president that we shouldn't arm them until we know just who it is that we are arming.
He emphasized the need to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon but nevertheless called for “peaceful and diplomatic means,” as Obama has, and praised Obama's “crippling sanctions” as “absolutely the right thing to do.”
He openly congratulated the president on taking out Osama bin Laden but called for “a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the Islamic world and others” to reject radical extremism. Sounds a lot like Obama again.
And Libya? What happened to the boiling issue that Romney raised on the very night of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on our consulate in Benghazi that killed an ambassador and three other Americans? Romney didn't even seem to want to go there.
Obama criticized Romney's lack of foreign policy experience and flip-flops in strategy that have been “all over the map.”
Yet Romney, who many observers thought came off as too aggressive and even disrespectful during the previous week's debates, responded only with a gentle-but-firm, “Attacking me is not an agenda.” That was a pretty good zinger in itself, since Obama's campaign has focused in these final weeks less on building up his second-term vision than on knocking down his opponent.
Against those attacks Moderate Mitt, with his cherubic smile and late-night pitchman's hard sell, has been showing up since the first debate — just in time to appeal to the last small but crucial sliver of voters who remain, for some reason, undecided.
Since the remaining undecideds also tend to be the least ideological voters, they may even identify with Romney's flip-flops. After all, he sounds like he's undecided, too.
They also might appreciate his professed ability to work across ideological lines. Who better to break through Washington's partisan gridlock than a chameleon man?
Yet they should be wary of his boasts in his closing debate speech about working with the other party. “I was in a state where my legislature was 87 percent Democrat,” said Moderate Mitt. “I learned how to get along on the other side of the aisle. We've got to do that in Washington.”
But that contrasts sharply with the earlier Combative Mitt who bragged in a 2008 campaign ad about taking on his legislature. “I like vetoes,” he said. “I vetoed hundreds of spending appropriations as governor.” Indeed, he issued some 800 vetoes during his single term, according to FactCheck.org, and his state's legislature overrode “more than 700 of them.”
He did venture across the aisle from time to time, but he apparently didn't stick around long. He had a lot more Mitts to make. I can hardly wait to see which one shows up next.
TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES