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Here's the thing about Mitt Romney: he's a pretty terrible politician, and he always has been. His presidential campaign has verged on malpractice almost every week, and tonight's debate is not going to turn that around in a significant way.
He might get a bump just from being on stage with the President, which automatically makes a challenger seem more plausible, but that's not going win him this election. The frantic spin coming out his campaign reveals they know this themselves. If he were really planning to turn the whole course of the election around with a few carefully crafted "zingers," then (1) that would be pathetic, and (2) he wouldn't be announcing the "zingers" in advance. (It's like saying, "Look out, Roosevelt! We're launching a surprise attack next Sunday!") At this point the Romney campaign has been reduced to spinning the media to keep them from talking about how badly Romney is losing.
As Romney continues to fail, there's going to be a real temptation to treat Romney's political clumsiness as a big joke. I'll confess I was succumbing to that temptation before the campaign even got underway, referring to Mitt as the "Mormon Mike Dukakis." The all-too-obvious follow-up joke, of course, is that the comparison isn't fair to Dukakis. But that's not a joke. It's true. Mike Dukakis had a double-digit lead over George Bush for part of the 1988 campaign. Romney has never had a real lead.
But Romney's ineptitude isn't funny. He's bad for the country. If he somehow slipped into office, he would actually have to deal with the pretty serious set of problems this country is facing, but lack any of the communication and persuasion skills needed to cope with those difficulties. He can't sell the American people on a difficult plan in times of trouble, and even he knows that (which is why he doesn't try to sell the American people on any plan at all). But the President of the United States needs to be able to build public support for his programs, especially when the country faces hard times, and these are most certainly hard times. The President also needs to get his own party behind him, and it's pretty obvious that Romney can't do that. Four years of our ongoing problems, plus any new ones that emerge, with a maladroit leader and mutinous, fractured majority party adds up to nothing good at all.
But Romney's ineptitude will manage to be bad for America even when he loses, because it will serve as one more excuse for the Republican Party to keep ignoring reality. Our system does not work when one party refuses to cope with the world for an extended period of time, and the very best thing that could happen in our political life is for the Republicans to look around and take an honest accounting of why they lost. That won't happen if they have a cheap scapegoat to blame instead, and Romney is a scapegoat made to order. "We just need a better candidate," will be the Republican mantra for the next four years, allowing them to tell themselves that there's no problem with their policies or their ideas. Worse, they will spend four years telling themselves that their policies and ideas would have won, if they had only had a better salesman, that approximately 103% of the American people are natural Tea Party voters who just haven't been given a chance to pull the lever for the right guy. That means four more years of one major party not dealing with reality. And that means four more years of that party not addressing the country's problems, either. That's bleakly absurd, but it's certainly not funny.