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The October Outrage

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The presidential election was going exactly as many informed observers had expected. The narrative seemed obvious, to many of us, all along. I predicted in July 2011 that Mitt Romney would win the Republican nomination. A year out from the election, I challenged the notion that an Obama reelection was hampered by economic calculus because he, unlike his likely challenger, has both realistic ideas and heart. Along the way, I questioned the good in the righteous Republican candidates who tried to one up each other on their severely conservative yet inherently illogical and uncompassionate positions on abortion, entitlements, immigration, taxation, gay rights, fair pay, the environment, education and war.

Then, of course, having watched Mr. Romney slither through the primaries and into the general election on the shifting sands of flip flops, blatant misrepresentations and lack of disclosure, I declared him too mendacious for the American people. Romney's own bumbling episodes, home and abroad, and his uber-one-percent persona only added to the perception that his candidacy was doomed. And all this was before being caught on tape showing contempt for 47 percent of the electorate ("My job is not to worry about them" were his unfathomably unpatriotic words).

So, October began with a yawning Obama lead and the expectation of a solid victory in November. A landslide seemed possible. But now, somehow, towards the end of the month, the race is essentially tied and Romney has the momentum. Say whaaa? There's been no real scandal nor true October surprise, only a bad debate performance by the president and a monumental pivot on the part of the challenger. That's it. And this is all it takes to dramatically alter the dynamic of an election for the highest office on the planet? Let's take a closer look:

The first debate was, no doubt, a bad, bad night for President Obama. From the opening moments he appeared disengaged and poorly prepared, especially with regard to body language. But still, he didn't say anything remotely awful. He didn't make the major gaffe or fall prey to any "Gotcha!" moments. He was respectful throughout, to both his challenger and the moderator. His biggest flaws were lack of eye contact and lack of vigor. Romney, on the other hand, was confident and aggressive. He commanded the stage and dominated the evening. He was also arrogant. He ran roughshod over the hapless moderator. He spoke over, and down to, the President of the United States of America. He also spoke a whole lot of hooey. So, yes, Mr. Romney won significantly on style, but substantively, he was -- as my grandmother would say -- talking out of his hat. My favorite fictional declaration, among many, involved his claim that his health care plan covers preexisting conditions and allows children to remain on their parents' coverage up till age 26. I'm sorry, but MITT ROMNEY DOESN'T HAVE A HEALTH CARE PLAN! His website has a page-and-a-half statement that says he would lean on private markets and state leadership for health care but offers no details on pesky matters like coverage or payment. Such mistruths dominated Romney's rhetoric the night of the first debate, and it signaled his cynical pivot to the middle during the last weeks of the election.

The "etch-a-sketch" strategy shared by a Romney advisor in March was met with vast derision. People laughed at the absurdity of such a notion. I mean, come on, a candidate for President of the United States could never get away with such a ridiculous ploy, such a callous and desperate attempt at identity change. A half-turn on a whole host of issues in the 11th hour before a presidential election would be absurd! Shameful! Actually, desperate would be most apt. It reminds me of the occasional student of mine with very little hope of passing on his/her own effort who presents work that is not their own. Plagiarism is ultimately an act of desperation, and while I am sympathetic (on occasion) to their plight, I never let such attempts go unpunished. The student gets an F. The reason for the no-tolerance policy is that there is something more important at play than grade, and that thing is character. And fairness. We have an obligation in society to be honest with one another and to be treated fairly in return. We play by the same rules. We can't expect to lay claim to accomplishments or proclamations that are not our own. We must hold one another and ourselves accountable for what we do and what we say. We should expect to be awarded for honest effort and punished for blatant attempts to mislead. Somehow, it seems this code does not apply to Mr. Romney. He is being blatantly dishonest, and it seems to be working on his behalf.

What would it say about our country if Mitt's month of magical mendacity pays off? What would happen during the next election season? Would dishonesty be the new strategy? Would the ends justify the means in American politics? And between now and the next election, how on earth would Romney govern, having sold his soul to so many dispirit devils? Apparently, in today's toothless media environment, amidst a population that looks at the choice of American president as if it were a contest for American Idol, you can succeed merely via robust stage performance and shape shifting rhetoric, but you can't govern like that.

I suspect the next few weeks will be one where President Obama regains his mojo and the narrative. He'll be everywhere, including on all the major news networks, while Romney will be hiding from the media who might just get hip to the fact that it's their job to ask tough questions and demand straight answers. Voters, especially women, will consider the reality of a Republican presidency. I also suspect that most of the major endorsements will go towards Obama. So, yes, I'm still confident that the president will prevail, but I'm also deeply troubled by the reality that a cipher like Mitt Romney nearly bullied and bullshitted his way to the American presidency.

What is happening here?