10/04/2012 07:37 am ET Updated Dec 04, 2012

The Etch-A-Sketch Debate

After last night's tiresome presidential debate, President Obama's supporters were offering up what Groucho Marx used to call "departee" -- suggestions on what the president should have said. That's a pretty good indicator about how the debate turned out.

The evening featured a remarkable shifting of shape, a new Etch-A-Sketch, by Mitt Romney. Romney, filled with earnest intensity, simply walked away from much of his campaign to date. He ignore the centerpiece of his platform -- his plan to cut tax rates by 20 percent, eliminate the estate and gift tax, sustain the carried interest and capital gains tax breaks, paid for by eliminating unspecified loopholes. Simple addition and subtraction shows that ends up handing the wealthy a huge tax break that must be paid by the middle class paying more, mostly by losing deductions for their home mortgages or their health care. Well forget about it. Last night, Romney announced that he wouldn't let taxes go up on anyone -- or apparently down on anyone either. His bold idea, as the president said, is... well "never mind."

And so it went, as Romney shamelessly squared every circle. Regulation is "essential," but just not Dodd-Frank. The man from Bain, his campaign raking in dough from disgruntled Wall Street bankers, claimed to be opposed to Dodd-Frank because it was a boon to "New York City bankers." Who knew?

And Romney's for covering preexisting conditions, letting kids stay on their parents' health care plans, aiding seniors with the cost of prescription drugs, for just about anything that polls well in health care -- just not for Obamacare, which he lied is a government takeover of health care. Mitt waxed eloquent on the benefits of competition among insurance companies in health care, proving that he can sell strychnine as an elixir. He's for more teachers, and won't cut education. He's for those in trouble, and waxed rhapsodic on how America will always care for them. He's for all these things, and he'll pay for them by cutting off Big Bird. And so it went.

The president largely seemed detached, often listless in response to Romney's shifting shapes. He called on Romney to supply a few details, questioned why all his plans are secret if they are so good.

But secret plans and skimpy details aren't really what's missing in Romney. What's missing is any sense of shame when it comes to making a sale. He'll pitch it flat, and pitch it sharp. He'll paint it black and peddle it white. He's an "extreme conservative" on Monday, a raging moderate today, an enlightened reformer on Friday. The president looked exasperated just trying to figure out what Romney Romney was peddling last night.

And Romney pretty much got away with the shape-shifting, except for one revealing moment. When he eagerly opened defense of his Medicare position by saying seniors don't have to worry. "If you're around 60, you don't need to listen any further." Anyone younger had to know that they are about to get the shaft.

Romney's stumbling campaign has gotten brutal reviews from the punditry. But last night demonstrated his strength. We know who he is. He believes in more tax breaks for the wealthy, less regulation on the corporations, more corporate trade deals, more money for the military, deep and debilitating cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and every domestic program. The full catastrophe that got us into the mess we are in. He is the tribune of the 1 percent, the champion of trickle down. But he's prepared to abandon that agenda to sell it, and do so without even a glimmer of conscience that he forcefully argued the reverse last month.

Romney truly is the man from Bain. There he "harvested" profits from companies, by arguing with a straight face that taking on massive debt would benefit the company and its workers. Of course, Bain would pocket its piece up front, but Romney would assure executives and workers we're all in this together. Right.

Now he's pushing tax cuts and deregulation, but don't worry. "My plan is not like anything that's been tried before." We're all in this together. Of course, the plan is secret; the details too complicated. But elect me first -- let me as always take my piece up front -- and then you'll see, we'll all prosper. If the man from Bain can sell that, we are all in big trouble.