Final presidential debate exposes the real Mitt Romney

Opinion

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Final presidential debate exposes the real Mitt Romney battleground 2012 cleardot

Throughout much of the campaign season, political analysts have asked variations on the question, “who is Mitt Romney?”

Is he the Massachusetts moderate or the “severe conservative”? The guy whose campaign torched fellow Republicans during the primary and ran “welfare queens” TV ads against Obama in the general to rile up economically insecure white voters, or the conciliator who, gosh darn it, just wants to work with Democrats in Washington to create jobs?

Would the monocled, ice cold capitalist who “extracts profits” from U.S. companies and ships their jobs to China show up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on January 20, 2012, or the kindly Mormon minister?

During last night’s third and final presidential debate, which was as tonally different, at least on Romney’s part, from the first debate as night is from day, I think we found out. Mitt Romney is exactly who he has always said he is: a businessman. Before now, we just didn’t know what business he was in. Now we do, and it’s door-to-door sales.

And since his the product he’s currently hawking in America’s neighborhoods is President Romney — a product with few defining features other than tremendous wealth and invisible tax returns — Mitt is engaged in a rather cynical, but also very simple, marketing campaign.

When the customer was the far right tea party, Romney sold them austerity. He picked Paul Ryan to be the division chief for his Medicare voucherizing, poor people’s programs slashing unit. He boasted to a claque of rich donors that in his mind, the 47 percent of America who are deadbeats shouldn’t look to him for salvation.

When the customer was evangelical Christians, the Mormon from Massachusetts/Michigan/Mexico or wherever he needs to be from in the moment, pitched harsh measures to restrict or even outlaw abortion and contraception. Having finally won over his initial target market, salesman Romney moved on to women. He likes women! He even ordered a binder full of them back in Massachusetts! And what’s that you say about contraception? By debate #2, the collateral on that had been completely redesigned.

Mitt Romney likes PBS (if you like it!) And he’ll also cut it, if you are a customer desiring an end to Big Bird’s federal dole. He likes teachers, and also wants to hire no more of them! He hates to see jobs go to China, but likes profiting from them, because you know… Freedom!

Now, after the final debate, we learn that the boys in the Romney, Inc. Target Marketing Department believe their guy’s newest customer, the undecided voter, would like world peace, Navy ships (for the Virginia sector), automobiles (hello, Ohio!) and something other than the “bankruptcy” Romney was selling to tea party buyers back in his “severe conservative” days, plus some combination of “strength” and “freedom” (for the Reagan Democrats on aisle three).

Romney demonstrated on Monday that he believes the folks whose doors he’s knocking on may not be in love with President Obama, but they like the incumbent’s foreign policy, on Iraq, the Arab Spring, keeping our troops out of Iran and Syria, drone strikes and of course the killing of Osama bin Laden. So of course, Romney likes all of those things, too, even if he opposed many of the same policies as recently as this month.

To the likely astonishment of his old customers, Romney 3.0  presented himself as not so much a critic of the president, but an applicant for a job in the Obama administration (Jon Huntsman fans, that’s your cue!) should this whole “running for president” thing not work out.

Romney’s utter shapelessness on nearly every issue allows him to be whatever the target audience at that moment wants him to be; an essential tool for direct sales. He proudly — and cynically — believes in absolutely nothing. His only ideology appears to be his burning ambition to be president. Last night he sought to slither out of the embrace of the neo-cons and George W. Bush relics, even as they are shaping his foreign policy as part of the Romney campaign, just as sure as he jettisoned social conservatives and tea partiers in the last debate (abortion, contraception and tax cuts? Never heard of them!) The effort it must take to perform the intellectual gymnastics on display in the debate may be why Romney was covered in a dewy blanket of facial sweat by half-time.

It was left to Obama to walk befuddled voters through the litany of Romney flip-flops, and to expose the shallowness of his knowledge about the fundamentals of statecraft. (We have a smaller Navy than at any time since 1916? The president would like you to know we also don’t have horses and bayonets anymore. Also, war is not a game of Battleship. The two best lines of the night.)

Obama accused Romney of wanting “the foreign policy of the 1980s, the social policy of the ’50s and the economic policy of the 1920s.” He could just as easily have accused him of running for door-to-door salesman in chief. Need a vacuum cleaner, lady? No? Well this baby also cleans hardwood floors! No hardwood? The Romneytron 5000 also blows up balloons! No balloons? Well how about you just make me president and let’s see what happens…

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport