Kill Big Bird or just pluck some of his feathers? Or neither, in keeping with what often happens to promises made by politicians? As Ted Kennedy once said of Romney's abortion policy, "I am pro-choice. My opponent is multiple choice."
Barack Obama had a tough time in the debate because he was told he would be debating Mitt Romney, a self-described "severely conservative" Republican who rails against regulation, promises huge tax cuts and has no use for Washington's meddling in private businesses like health insurance. But Mitt Romney had to cancel.
Instead the president found himself facing a last-minute replacement named Mitt Romney, a bipartisan-minded compromiser who says, "You can't have a free market without regulation," vows not to accept any tax cut that would increase the deficit and wants to tell insurance companies whom to insure.
Obama wrote a book called "The Audacity of Hope." But until Wednesday, he never knew the meaning of audacity. Romney left Obama looking like a nearsighted farmer chasing a greased pig in a dark barn.
Reciting his five-point economic plan, the GOP nominee said, "Number four, get us to a balanced budget." He grieved over chronic deficits: "I think it's, frankly, not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in."
But there's that other Romney. His website page on spending omits any promise or plan to eliminate the deficit. Elsewhere, he has said he would balance the budget in eight to 10 years -- by which time it will be someone else's problem.
The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that Romney's budget plan would increase the federal debt from 73 percent of gross domestic product to 86 percent over the next decade -- even more than Obama's. If reviving the economy requires a balanced budget, we can assume that under Romney it would remain stalled.
You may know the Mitt Romney whose economic program consists mostly of keeping old tax cuts and passing new ones. But Obama found himself debating a candidate who vowed there would be no tax cut if it would enlarge the deficit -- as that other Mitt Romney's program would almost certainly do.
Obama found himself in the strange though not unexpected position of being attacked for using Romney's Massachusetts health care program as a model. When the subject came up, Romney said that "the best course for health care is to do what we did in my state." Obama tried to do that, but Romney won't take yes for an answer.
Having it both ways and all ways is Romney's specialty. In his previous life, he supported abortion rights, gun control and gays in the military. Today, not so much.
It's not just positions Romney held years ago that he has jettisoned; it's also positions he's taken in this campaign. One Mitt Romney attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry for endorsing the Dream Act, which would allow some people brought to this country illegally as children to gain legal status. When Obama decided to stop their deportations, this Romney criticized the decision.
But the other Mitt Romney refused to disclose whether he would keep it. Then he said he would allow those young people reprieved by Obama to stay until Congress enacts "the full immigration reform plan that I've proposed."
What exactly that "reform" would consist of remains unclear to the young immigrants and everyone else. As with his plan to cut tax loopholes, the details and even the outline will be drawn later.
Romney's temperate debate approach was intended to reassure independent voters who fear he'll be a hostage of the Tea Party. But it had another, stranger effect: When he was upholding hard-right positions, conservative commentators regarded him as irredeemably moderate. Now that he's embracing moderation, they hail him as a conservative hero.
But whatever your views on an issue, you can hold out hope that Romney shares them, or soon will. With him, no position is ever final; no star is ever fixed.
This presidential campaign has produced few laughs but at least one joke: A liberal, a conservative and a moderate walk into a bar. The bartender says, "Hi, Mitt."
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman. To find out more about Steve Chapman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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