The funniest line from the third and final debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney wasn't the President's riff about "horses and bayonets" which he used to sink Mitt Romney's hilarious accusation the US Navy has gone to rot on Obama's watch because America has fewer dreadnaughts than it did in 1917.
No, the funniest line was when Romney tried to defensively repulse one of Obama's many on-target broadsides by whining: "Attacking me is not an agenda."
What makes the line so comical is that -- in both foreign and domestic affairs -- attacking President Obama for prevailing conditions whether the President is to blame or not is the only agenda Romney's got.
Romney did score an impressive win in that first debate with his pre-packaged, well-practiced, Power Point-like riffs on the still-struggling economy that devilishly obscured Romney's own far right record. No doubt about it, Romney makes a great first impression. And so, with millions of Americans tuning into the campaign for the first time a "Romney surge" of one magnitude or another was inevitable, no matter what President Obama did.
But it has been all down hill for the Republican challenger since as the American people have gotten to know Romney better and discovered there is no there, there. For the truth is Mitt Romney doesn't age well with time. He's a one-trick pony who offers biography in place of policy because he can't talk about his openly -- just like the Republican National Convention that didn't play so well with the public either.
And so deprived of talking about his own agenda because it is unpopular Romney is reduced to attacking Obama's and repeating his by-now familiar litany of complaints about conditions in the economy, which he did three times during a last debate ostensibly devoted to matters of foreign policy.
We've heard it all before many times and the repetition of cherry-picked and distorted negativity is beginning to wear thin: That middle-class incomes have declined by $4,300 during the past four years; that 23 million Americans are still struggling to find good jobs; that 15 million more Americans are on food stamps than when President Obama took office; that America's debt has increased by $4 trillion over the last four years (which is the $1 trillion deficit George W. Bush left to Obama, times four); and that Obama is nine million jobs short of the 5.4% unemployment rate he "promised" to achieve at the beginning of his term.
Yet, when it comes to actual policy Romney's heavily-touted "five-point plan" for turning the American economy around turns out to be, on closer inspection, so much mush and shell games.
And Romney's plans for keeping America safe in a dangerous world are no better. When Romney's ideas on foreign policy weren't indistinguishable from the President's he was proposing that we hand over another $2 trillion to defense contractors to build weapons systems the Pentagon neither wants nor needs.
Here is a quick rule of thumb: When a candidate for president calculates the threats to the nation as being a fixed percentage of GDP -- as Romney does with his promise to devote exactly 4% of gross domestic output to defense - it's probably not a good idea to give that candidate the keys to the Oval Office.
But as Fareed Zakaria writes in today's Washington Post, there is another set of statistics Romney could just have easily recited: That the International Monetary Fund projects growth will be down everywhere in the world except in the United States; that the US is forecast to grow an average of 3% because it has relied on government stimulus to dig out of the recession while others took Republican advice and pursued austerity; that debt in the financial sector relative to GDP has fallen back to levels last seen before the credit bubble began in 2000; that US households have reduced their debt relative to disposable income by 15%, more than in any other country; that corporate profits are at an all-time high as a percentage of gross domestic product; that companies have $1.7 trillion in cash on their balance sheets; that government intervention assisted this process with banks, auto companies and even in housing; that the investments President Obama made in sustainable energy has helped bring manufacturing jobs back to the US; that US exports have climbed 45% in the past four years and are at their highest level as a percentage of GDP.
With numbers like these you might have expected President Obama to get a little more respect from Wall Street leaders who were reliably on his side four years ago but have since abandoned him en masse in favor of Mitt Romney.
Ben Protess in today's New York Times helps explain some of the mystery.
The Obama administration has not exactly covered itself in glory bringing to justice the white collar criminals and financial sector frauds who brought down our economy four years ago. But if the malefactors of great wealth on Wall Street seem unusually eager to elect one of their own, despite the substantial gains they've made under Obama, it may have something to do with the $1 billion in penalties federal prosecutors are now seeking from institutions like Bank of America as compensation for behavior that forced taxpayers to cover billions in bad loans, writes Protess.
According to the Times, prosecutors yesterday accused the bank of carrying out a scheme started by its Countrywide Financial unit that defrauded government-backed agencies by originating mortgages without proper controls.
"Prosecutors say the venture was a symbol of Wall Street's slipshod standards during the mortgage bubble," says Protess, in which Countrywide allegedly rubber-stamped mortgage loans to risky borrowers and passed them on to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-controlled mortgage financial giants that guaranteed the loans.
"The two entities were ultimately stuck with heavy losses and a glut of foreclosed properties," the Times reported.
"The fraudulent conduct alleged in today's complaint was spectacularly brazen in scope," said the United States Attorney for Manhattan in a prepared statement. "This lawsuit should send another clear message that reckless lending practices will not be tolerated."
Prosecutors contend that Countrywide abandoned its lending standards with the goal of generating a high number of loans, said Protess. "Countrywide tore down internal controls known as tollgates that were in place to slow the mortgage process and root out risky borrowers," he reports.
The firm at one point removed trained underwriters from the loan process, opting instead to rely on "unqualified and inexperienced" loan processors. At times, prosecutors claim, loan processors crossed a legal line. Some "repeatedly did manipulate" loan forms, jotting down higher incomes for borrowers so they would qualify for Fannie Mae's standards, says Protess.
By early 2008, more than a third of the unit's loans were defective, a significant jump over the industry standard of about 5 percent, Protess reports.
Despite the poor performance, the bank sold the loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and "concealed the defect rates and continued the hustle," the prosecutor said.
While President Obama may have been slow trying to get to the bottom of the financial meltdown four years ago and to hold those responsible accountable, it is also a pretty fair bet that a future President Romney would almost certainly call off the police dogs in order to shield from scrutiny those financial institutions and products that Romney himself may in fact profit from.
The only way to know for sure whether Romney would stand to personally gain from actions he took as President that shielded Wall Street and its products from prosecution would be to look at the tax returns he's steadfastly refused to make public.
But throwing its support to Romney as indemnity against future prosecution may be one reason the financial sector has done such an abrupt about-face in shifting its candidate loyalty in four short years -- despite the real gains this sector has enjoyed during Obama's first term.
But it's E.J. Dionne who offers the best explanation for why Romney and Paul Ryan have had to be so sneaky about their plans for America's future.
Writing in today's Post, Dionne asks the $64,000 question: Does anyone really think Romney would be spending the last three weeks throwing virtually every one of his positions overboard - both foreign and domestic -- if he really thought the nation "were ready to endorse the full-throated conservatism he embraced to win the Republican nomination?"
The right wing may be biting its tongue in order to have a chance at regaining power, but the disappearance since the first debate of the "severely conservative" Mitt Romney who won the GOP nomination is "a recognition that the grand ideological experiment heralded by the rise of the Tea Party has gained no traction" with the American people, Dionne insists.
Not to put too fine a point on it, says Dionne, but if conservatives think Romney is lying because they know he really doesn't believe "the moderate mush" he's been putting out there for the past three weeks, then why should the rest of us trust Romney either?
In Monday's debate, Dionne says Romney buried "without ceremony" the great Bush-Cheney project to remake the Middle East in America's democratic image, renouncing a War in Iraq "he had once supported with vehemence and enthusiasm."
On budget policy, Dionne wonders "if the Romney/Paul Ryan budget and tax ideas were so popular, why would the candidate and his sidekick be investing so much energy in hiding the most important details of their plans?"
This Romneygate-like cover-up has been underway ever since the first debate in early October when he repeatedly tried to disguise the fact he intends to give the wealthiest American's a $250,000 tax cut by dishonestly insisting the wealthy's share of federal income taxes will not change if he gets his way to cut everyone's taxes by 15%.
Romney knows that a large majority favors raising taxes on the rich and opposes slashing programs like Medicare and Social Security, says Dionne. And since Romney's actual plan calls for both "he has to disguise the fact."
The surest sign that right wing conservatism is a spent force as a winning electoral ideology, says Dionne, "is Romney's straight-out deception about his past position on the rescue of the auto industry."
As Dionne notes, in 2008 Romney claimed that if the bailout of Detroit-based automakers went through, "you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye." The car companies, he said, would "seal their fate with a bailout check." Yet, today, this same shape-shifting Romney wants us to believe that he "loves" American cars and would do nothing to harm their industry.
"If the bailout is now good politics, and it is," says Dionne, "then free-market fundamentalism has collapsed in a heap."
Despite the ups and downs in the polls, every election has certain fundamentals that almost always drive the eventual outcome. And this election is driven by the fact, as Dionne says, the "conservatives' standard-bearer is now trying to escape the consequences of their ideas," which tells us everything we need to know about who is winning the philosophical battle and who will win the election in the end.
I've been feeling ever since Joe Biden gave a graduate-level schooling to Paul Ryan during the vice presidential debate, and even more so since President Obama's impressive win against Romney in their first rematch, that the fundamental issue driving this election will be, quite literally, cars -- and American-built ones in particular.
Obama is said to be losing the white male vote by 30 points. But the ones who matter make cars and car products -- in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa. And they are on the President's side because the President was on theirs when it really counted -- and against Republicans like Mitt Romney who were saying when the chips were down "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."
Those four words, I predict, will be Mitt Romney's epitaph in 2012.