Mitt Romney's Halloween Tricks

This Halloween, Romney is disguising his "severely conservative" side by dressing up as Moderate Mitt.

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at the 67th annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, a charity gala organized by the Archdiocese of New York and also attended by President Barack Obama,Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York.
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All Hallows' Eve is upon us, but not in its ordinary annual form. Instead we're in the midst of the quadrennial version where an implacable army of hollow-eyed zombies—political junkies—consumes each day's latest poll numbers like so many handfuls of candy corn. Voters, especially in swing states, endure what must seem like a waking nightmare of endless negative campaign commercials.

In this season of trick or treat, the emphasis is definitely on the trick.

Consider, for example, the costume that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has been running around in all month: Ever since the first presidential debate in Colorado, the self-described "severely conservative" pol has been parading around as Mitt the mild moderate.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

That was never more starkly on display than Monday night during the foreign policy-focused presidential debate. He had spent most of his campaign growling out neoconservative rhetoric about American exceptionalism aimed at obscuring the fact that he had few if any substantive policy differences with the president. ("It sounded like you thought that you'd do the same things we did, but you'd say them louder and somehow that—that would make a difference," Obama needled him Monday.) But wearing his "moderate Mitt" costume on Monday, the GOP nominee changed his tune—he tried to out-peacenik the president ("We can't kill our way out of this mess") when he bothered trying to express any differences at all. His parade of agreements with the president made one wonder whether he shouldn't have just worn an Obama mask out onto the stage.

And it wasn't just his previous national security rhetoric he hoped to Etch A Sketch out of public memory. Romney continues to fight a rearguard action against his own written and spoken words about the auto bailout. He and Obama got into a heated exchange about his November 2008 New York Times op-ed titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." A seemingly indignant Romney declared that "the idea that has been suggested that I would liquidate the [auto] industry, of course not. Of course not." Of course not, indeed—Romney didn't advocate liquidation; he simply advocated a course of action that would have led to liquidation. It's true that his op-ed contemplated the federal government providing guarantees, but they were for "post-bankruptcy financing."

[Read more from Robert Schlesinger, Mort Zuckerman, and others in U.S. News Weekly, available on iPad.]

But at the time the companies needed more than post-bankruptcy federal guarantees; they needed cash to get them through the process, and that money wasn't going to come from the private capital markets in late 2008 or early 2009. It was either taxpayer money or nothing. And that Romney clearly opposed. "There's no question but that if you just write a check that you're going to see these companies go out of business ultimately," Romney told CBS News then in a video clip turned up this week by the Huffington Post. Later, during the Republican primary portion of his never-ending campaign, he railed against the policy. "My view with regards to the bailout was that…it was the wrong way to go," he said during a 2011 debate.

Romney's opposition to the bailout was easy. It was popular. But now it's dogging him like a cheap slasher-flick monster that he can't seem to kill, "moderate Mitt" guise or no. It has probably doomed him in Michigan and it may well prove his undoing in Ohio, which seems likely to decide the election.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

This despite another trick which is proving a treat for Republicans: the myth of "Mitt-mentum." The first debate undeniably gave Romney's effort a jolt and helped him capitalize on a race that was already tightening. But with Obama winning the latter two debates, the race has seemed to stabilize into a walking dead heat. However that hasn't stopped the Romney campaign from very visibly assuming the posture of a group coasting to an inexorable victory.