At last night's foreign policy debate, Mitt Romney sought to obscure differences rather than clarify them, even going so far as to etch-a-sketch away his most hawkish language on Afghanistan and Iran.
But why? At this stage of the race, with candidates as smart as President Obama and Gov. Romney, it is safe to say that nothing happens by accident. Faced with a debate where he would have to actually articulate what differences in policy underlay the tough talk and harsh administration critique he delivers in Fox News interviews, Romney threw in the towel before the fight started.
He realized that beyond the bellicose words that had carried him through the primaries and into contention for the presidency, there were no policies that made sense. So, Romney decided to hide behind a platform that was little more than "me too," and simply parroted the president's lead.
With the three debates now complete, the campaigns running on vapors and adrenaline until Nov. 6, and only one jobs report left to help frame the outcome, where are we? There are essentially three areas of substance to think about: domestic social issues, domestic economic issues, and foreign policy. On social issues, Romney has swung from moderate governor to Todd Akin acolyte and back to moderate Mitt, moving us through generations of social convention in days, leaving us confused and baffled about his core convictions. On economic issues, Romney has exhumed the skeleton of an economic agenda that touts lower taxes as a mantra for growth. If only the historical record gave any credence to the claims! And now on foreign policy, Romney has conceded no real disagreement. The Romney campaign, at the end of the day, is so much less than meets the eye.
So why its appeal? Why is the race so close? The president's first term dealt well with the immediate crisis of economic cataclysm but not with trends of declining middle-class income and security. People are unhappy. And when alternatives appear with promises, no matter how empty and unfounded they may be, people will give them a long look. The anxiety about our future that has allowed Mitt Romney a seat at the table is what will drive our politics for the next decade.