A fly on the wall as the two families mingled pleasantly onstage following the third and final presidential debate in Boca Raton last night might have overheard President Obama asking Mitt Romney if the Republican challenger would like to become his press secretary.
"You make the case for my foreign policy even better than I do, Mitt," the President might have said at the conclusion of Romney's stunning performance last night. "Why don't you dump that creepy guy with the Eddie Munster haircut and come join my team?"
It was that kind of night, and that surreal. Once again, Romney showed he will say or do anything to win. Put him in front of a crowd of VMI cadets in their snappy dress grays and Romney will sound like Attila the Hun. Show him polling saying he needs to close the gap with war-weary women and he comes off sounding like Shirley Temple.
And if Romney must give a ringing endorsement to his opponent's entire foreign policy record - lock, stock and bayonet - he can do that, too.
The Washington Post's foreign affairs columnist, David Ignatius provides the particulars:
"Romney backed Obama's sanctions strategy toward Iran and said he favored military action only as a last resort; he declared Obama's troops surge in Afghanistan a success and promised not to remain there past 2014, even if the Afghanistan is fracturing; he rejected military intervention in Syria, including a no-fly zone; and he endorsed Obama's abrupt dismissal of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. His chief goal in the turbulent Middle East seemed to be to 'help the Muslim world' and create a 'peaceful planet.'"
The President expressed his own views "forcefully," said Ignatius, but the effort was redundant since Romney himself was more than willing "to echo Obama's major positions."
And to make the "role reversal complete," Ignatius said "Obama stole many of what one might have expected would be Romney's best lines." He was, for example, the first to express passionate support for Israel -- "our true friend." He spoke of America as the "indispensable nation" - stealing Romney's praise for "American exceptionalism." And, the President had "the relentlessly pugnacious, in-your-face presence of a man whose message, first to last, was: I am commander-in-chief."
This last of three encounters between Obama and Romney was supposed to be confined to international matters, but Romney in particular seemed eager to stage a strategic retreat to what has been for him the high ground of domestic and economic disagreement with the President, in more ways than one.
In last night's foreign policy debate the Romney rhetorical style that has brought him back from the electoral abyss and put him within striking distance of the President was once again on display, namely the tactic of offering biography in place of policy and presenting a cutting bill of indictments against conditions on Obama's watch followed by empty promises and vague assurances that Romney can make things better.
Thus, once again we heard Romney's familiar refrain: That over the past four years incomes in America have declined for middle-income families, down $4,300; that 23 million Americans are still struggling to find a good job; that 15 million more people are on food stamps than when the President came in; that the debt has grown from $12 trillion to $16 trillion on Obama's watch (George Bush's $1 trillion deficit from 2008 times four); that by now unemployment should be at 5.4 percent if the President kept his "promise" but instead we're 9 million jobs short.
The only difference between last night and the debate three weeks ago is that this time Romney told us about a women from Wisconsin he'd met (or was it in the swing state of Pennsylvania?) who was having a hard time finding work out of college instead of the one from Dayton, Ohio we heard about in the first debate.
But you know how it is with all those people in the 47%. It's so hard to tell them apart.
Likewise, in last night's debate Romney simply switched out the millions of people on food stamps and inserted in their place the thousands who've been victims of Middle Eastern dictators.
"With the Arab Spring came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women and - and public life and in economic life in the Middle East," said Romney. "But instead we've seen, in nation after nation, a number of disturbing events. Of course, we see in Syria 30,000 civilians having been killed by the military there. We see in Libya an attack apparently by terrorists of some kind against our people there, four people dead. Our hearts and minds go to them. Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali, by al-Qaida-type individuals. We have in Egypt a Muslim Brotherhood president. And so, what we're seeing is pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region. Of course, the greatest threat of all is Iran, four years closer to a nuclear weapon."
Yet, when it comes to actual correctives what does Romney have to add?
For the US economy he offers himself - a businessman who "understands" the economy and so "knows how" to create jobs -- even if they are in China.
As for real economic policy, we will just have to wait until after Election Day to find out what's behind Door Number Two since Romney and running mate Paul Ryan steadfastly refuse to specify which "non-defense, discretionary" programs they intend to cut, and by how much, to balance the budget. Nor are they any more forthcoming on which middle-class tax deductions they would eliminate in order to pay for a $5 trillion tax cut that might keep the wealthy's share of taxes the same but which will, in real terms, give millionaires and above an average $250,000 more in their pocket.
And on foreign affairs, just what specifics does Romney offer to flesh out the "comprehensive and robust strategy" that he promised to pursue as president, one that offers to "help the world of Islam and reject this radical violent extremism?"
Romney again offers himself - or what turns out to a tougher-talking version of President Obama, one who would embrace the very same sensible policies of enlightened engagement with emerging democracies in the region while imposing sanctions short of war against our adversaries, but do so with more "spine."
What we need to do, says Romney, is to "go after the bad guys." But at the same time "we don't want another Iraq; we don't want another Afghanistan." Instead, we need to "pursue a pathway" that would "get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own."
It's a four point program that Romney says includes more economic development, better education, rule of law and gender equality for Arab women who face marginalization and subordination in these traditionalist, religious and patriarchal societies. It's a warm and fuzzy foreign policy aimed squarely at all those foreign nationals living in Stubenville, Ohio that deliberately swears off all Romney's previous swaggering threats to "bomb, bomb, bomb; bomb, bomb Iran."
So, why are neoconservatives like Bill Kristol smiling?
Under the headline "President Romney," the man who never saw an Arab country he didn't want to invade wrote that the peace-making Romney "is more than holding his own with Barack Obama tonight."
Only two other challengers have done as well debating foreign policy with an incumbent president, claimed Kristol -- Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter in 1980 and,Bill Clinton against George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Reagan and Clinton won and "Romney is now on track to becoming the third challenger to win in the last 32 years -- and the first in 80 years to defeat an incumbent who didn't have a primary challenge," said Kristol. "Tonight, Romney seems as fully capable as -- probably more capable than -- Barack Obama of being the next president. He probably will be."
When Henry Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams in the 1824 presidential election in exchange (it was supposed) for Adams appointing Clay to be his Secretary of State, disappointed supporters of Andrew Jackson decried their "corrupt bargain." It doesn't take a Glenn Beck conspiracy theorist to detect a similarly malodorous pact between Romney and his hawkish neoconservative backers who are keeping their powder dry if cooing like a dove for 90 short minutes helps win Romney the White House.
But imagine if Mitt Romney's excellent foreign adventure last summer, the one where he managed to make an ass of himself by insulting our closest foreign allies, had been for real and carried out among other world leaders far less forgiving of Romney's ineptitude?
Obama is right. At the end of the day an American President has "got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean." That is especially true in a region like the Middle East with its tribal animosities and ancient mistrust.
In the world's most dangerous neighborhood, America's ability to be the honest broker that can bring these nations together demands "strong, steady leadership" -- not the "wrong and reckless leadership" Romney exhibited even during his shameless and pitiful performance last night that was, in the President's words, "all over the map."
That long, black, marble monument etched with the names of more than 50,000 Americans gives silent testimony to a nation willing to endure the tragedy and heartache of even stupid wars whose only strategic purpose, in the end, was to preserve the integrity of America's word. Is this really a nation ready to make Mitt Romney its commander-in-chief?