10/23/2012 08:48 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2012

The Doublethink Debate

"I agree," said Mitt Romney, and so he did, with the same passionate intensity with which he previously scorned the president's foreign policies from one corner of the country to another. On Iran, on Afghanistan, on drones, on Libya, on Syria, on Egypt, on using military force, on bailing out Detroit, Mitt agreed. And then his Republican allies trooped out to chant the talking points of the night: Romney passed the "commander-in-chief test;" he proved he "wasn't a bomb thrower." He was "presidential," apparently by imitating the president. Another 20 minutes of this, Van Jones noted on CNN, and Romney might have endorsed Obama.

There's a haunting Orwellian aura to Romney's shape shifting. Suddenly, the past is rewritten. Previous positions are, to use Nixon's phrase, "inoperative." Utterly new positions are asserted as ones that have always been firmly held. Shameless nonsense -- the "apology tour," the "12 million jobs," the budget balanced by assertion despite trillions in new tax cuts and military spending -- is repeated with earnest authority. And then on CNN, David Gergen gargles that while the president won the debate "on points," Romney was "presidential."

Perhaps this is the new standard for the imperial presidency -- not candor but mendacity. Karl Rove, Bush's "brain," once scorned the "reality based community" for not understanding power. "We're an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality. ... We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to adjust, to just study what we do." Mitt Romney is the imperious candidate. What he says today has always been true, even if it contradicts what he said yesterday. And the rest of us are left to adjust to what he says. Maybe that's what Gergen considers presidential.

Beyond the eerie shape shifting, last night also highlighted the Romney campaign's utter cynicism. Americans are accustomed to candidates adopting muscular postures on foreign policy to prove they are tough enough to be president. Romney takes it further, adopting positions to appeal to specific constituencies in specific states. He won't tell us what programs he'll cut or loopholes he'll close, but he trumpets the number of new ships he will build. When Obama dismissed the need for them, Republican commentators chortled that would cost him big time in Virginia, when they ran ads in Newport News, a major military port. Romney's incredible claim that he'll crack down on China isn't part of an integrated trade policy; it's an appeal to Ohio voters. Why is Iran the "greatest threat to our national security" and not North Korea or Pakistan that already have nuclear weapons, or catastrophic climate change, or the folly of seeking to police the world? Iran is number one less because Israel is our friend than that Florida is in play.

The debate also revealed just how constricted our foreign policy discussion is. No questions were posed about climate change, which is already beginning to destabilize countries and economies. No doubt was expressed about the imperial presidency that now claims the right to target and kill anyone deemed a terrorist in any corner of the world, including American citizens. Platitudes substituted for any analysis of a global trade policy that is unsustainable. The austerity now driving Europe into recession and threatening a global downturn merited not a word. Only the president expressed even an intimation that the U.S. can no longer afford to police the world. There was no sense that America has been exceptional not from the fearfulness of its weapons, but from the breadth of a middle class that is now disappearing. Our politics still does not afford Americans a candid discussion of the straits we are in.