The biggest question hanging over all three Presidential debates was: Which Mitt Romney will show up?
Would it be the rightwing Romney we've seen on the campaign trail ("Planned Parenthood . . . I'll end that")?
The moderate Mitt who showed up for the first debate ("Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives")?
The aggressive, in-your-face Mitt who repeatedly interrupted the President and peppered him with questions in the second debate?
Or the Mitt we saw last night, who went out of his way to embrace Obama on nearly every foreign policy position of this Administration?
For conservative pundits, it turns out, it didn't matter.
Any Mitt will do, as long as it seems like he can beat Obama.
After Romney's enormously agreeable performance in the last debate, if you thought the "real men want to go to Tehran" crowd might object to their candidate's love-fest with Obama, you're in for a disappointment.
The editors over at National Review, the Weekly Standard, and Human Events were unanimous: Romney did a great job. By not committing any gaffes or appearing too bellicose, he accomplished everything he needed to do. In other words, he won by losing.
"I think Romney executed what must have been his strategy nearly flawlessly," wrote Rich Lowry at the National Review.
"Reassure people that he’s not a bomb-thrower; project strength but not bellicosity; go out of his way to say how many Obama policies he agrees with to create a sense of his reasonableness . . . "
Lowry threw in one wistful note: "I hope his team is going to clean up his Afghanistan answer because it certainly sounded like a President Romney would remove U.S. troops entirely after 2014 . . . "
But in total, he, and other Review writers declared the debate a success for the Republican candidate.
John Fund announced that the debate "won't be remembered".
Then, choosing to avoid Romney's me-too answers on foreign policy altogether, Fund chose to focus on the moments when the candidates went off-topic. Fund declared Romney the winner of these digressions. "There was a foreign-policy debate that was scheduled, and that debate, Obama may have won narrowly on points," Fund conceded. But the "mini-debate," where Romney changed the subject to the economy, "went to Mitt Romney as he relentlessly repeated his major themes — the president’s last four years haven’t worked." That, Fund said, "will solidify his position with independent voters."
Dittos from the neocons at The Weekly Standard:
In a substance-free assessment of the debate, Standard founder William Kristol--former cheerleader-in-chief for the Iraq War and recent proponent of bombing Iran--gave his quick summary:
"Tonight, Romney seems as fully capable as—probably more capable than—Barack Obama of being the next president. He probably will be."
"Romney wasn’t stumped or forced on the defensive on any issue. He committed no gaffes. As the challenger, Romney didn’t need to ‘win’ the debate—he only needed to hold his own . . . And he did."
Stephen Hayes parted ways with his colleagues, lamenting that Romney missed his chance to hammer the President on Libya, and noted with distaste that "Romney was so determined to avoid sounding like George W. Bush that he spent much of the night sounding like Barack Obama" (among the areas of agreement, Hayes noted, were Syria, drones, the 2014 troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq.) But, Hayes concluded, gamely, the debate probably didn't matter, and on the plus side, Obama didn't seem "likable."
Over at Human Events Hope Hodge praised Romney's "poise and gravitas," and a lead piece by Audrey Hudson summarized the candidates' (remarkably similar) answers to debate questions without comment.
Even the meanest girl on the right, Ann Coulter, who was merciless to the moderate Mitt Romney during the Republican primary, was on message after the last debate--in her own patented mean-girl style:
"I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard," she tweeted.
So much for policy. On to the election.
On Think Progress Hayes Brown put together a quick catalogue of Romney foreign policy flip-flops in last night's debate, including:
On Al Qaeda:
Romney opposed Obama's choice to enter Pakistan to get bin Laden. Now he congratulates the President on taking bin Laden out.
Earlier this year, Romney criticized as not "crippling" enough the same Iran sanctions he praised last night .
Romney last night declared his support for the President's troop withdrawal plan. Less than a year ago, he called the same plan "cut and run."
On China, progressive commentators, including our own Progressive Magazine writers and editors who were live-blogging the debate, noted that Obama failed to call Romney out on his connection to Bainport and the Sensata plant, where, thanks to policies he has personally profitted from, American workers are forced to train their Chinese replacements as their jobs are shipped overseas.
There were plenty of other progressive criticisms of Obama, whose foreign policy Progressive editor Matt Rothschild and Jeremy Scahill pointed out is so congenial to Republicans it is not that hard for Romney to embrace it.
Conducting foreign policy by assassination, drone strikes, tentative support for pro-democracy movements, and, of course, the craven pandering by both candidates to Israel, elicited groans from progressive commentators on Twitter.
But if the left continues to take issue with Obama's George W. Bush-lite conduct of the war on terror, the right seems to have compeletely given up on holding its candidate to any one position.
Numb to the fact that Romney is, as the President put it, "all over the map," they just hope the Etch-a-Sketch strategy will help him win.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Fireworks at the Second Tammy/Tommy Debate."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter