As the end of this election approaches, it's worth taking a step back and asking this question: In the entire history of the United States of America, from George Washington's election in 1789 on down, has there been a single candidate as unmoored from ideological principle or belief as Mitt Romney? I'm not just throwing an insult here, I ask this question sincerely. Because I can't think of any. There have been middle-of-the road candidates, candidates eager to compromise, candidates who would divert attention to issues that weren't all that important, and even candidates who at some point in their careers undertook a meaningful position change or two. For instance, early in George H.W. Bush's career he was an outspoken supporter of abortion rights, just as Al Gore was anti-choice early in his; both changed their positions to align with their parties. But Romney truly does stand alone, not only for the sheer quantity of issues on which he has shifted, but for the frequency with which wholesale shifts have taken place.
And with the presidential debates complete, there is barely an issue area on which Romney hasn't undergone a change just in the last few weeks. I had thought that no matter what else Romney might change his mind on, if there's one thing he believes it's that the wealth and privilege of the wealthy and privilege must be maintained and enhanced. But he even flip-flopped on that, not only pledging not to cut taxes on the wealthy (in contrast to what he said during the primaries), but actually proposing a huge tax increase on them (though I seem to be the only one who has noticed that that's what Romney has in fact proposed). That neither his supporters nor his opponents believe that he really wants that just makes it all the more remarkable. I feel like we've gotten so used to the idea of Romney as a shape-shifter that what for a different candidate might have been greeted as a series of scandalous acts of cynicism was instead greeted with, "Yep, everybody saw that coming."
You have to give some strategic props to Romney for his latest ideological refashioning. He waited to unveil it until the first presidential debate, when Republicans were at an emotional low point imagining that the president they hate with such consuming venom might waltz to a second term. After that, the new foreign policy Romney we met in the final debate came as no surprise. He calculated correctly that with the election so close his base wouldn't care, that they'd accept anything that might improve their chances of getting rid of Barack Obama. Perhaps they're grumbling in their private conversations, but I doubt it. They know that what matters is winning. They also understand that keeping a President Romney in line will take some work, but that's an effort they're ready for. And that would have been true whether he presented himself as newly Moderate Mitt in the last few weeks of the campaign or not.
Romney also probably understood that if he waited long enough, the press wouldn't punish him much for an ideological refashioning either. At the end of a campaign, horse-race reporting and the focus on the most trivial of campaign quibbles goes from being a bias that colors coverage to swallowing the entirety of coverage. Who has time to write a story about Romney's latest ideological metamorphosis, when there were 18 new polls released today and there are diners in Ohio whose customers have not yet been interviewed to plumb their deep swing-votery wisdom?
In popular culture, politicians are usually portrayed in one of two ways. First you have the candidate whose polished smile and charm hide something sinister: he murdered his mistress, or he'll resort to the most immoral tactics (blackmail, vote-stealing) to win. The second version is the candidate who believes in nothing other that whatever will get him an extra vote or two and who doesn't care at all about issues, the man or woman for whom the only goal is power and for whom power is an end in itself. This caricature is often a way for television shows and movies to use the political world as a dramatic setting while avoiding ideology completely, and it's one that applies to no politician I've ever encountered. Some are more cynical than others, but they all have things they believe in and things they'd like to do. They all have some vision of what America would look like if they had their way.
But in Mitt Romney we may finally have found a candidate who lives up to the caricature. I think by now we can safely say that when it comes to the things government does and the issues that confront the nation as a whole, he truly believes in nothing. It's really quite remarkable that not only could he get so far, but that he has a real chance to become president of the United States.