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Romney: a new kind of political shape shifter 

Speaking of a particularly creative murder suspect whose alibis grew increasingly more improbable, a veteran prosecutor once put it to me this way: "I've always found it's easier to keep your story straight if you're telling the truth to begin with."

Paralyzingly obvious, perhaps. Yet it's amazing how often people can get caught up in a well-told tale they wish to believe. The murderer had a considerable public following for a time.

(Her story's told in my book "Widow's Web.")

So it is in politics. All politicians dissemble some of the time, and we pretend to believe them. To name an obligatory political event in my home state, do you think they're really thrilled to attend the annual Gillette raccoon supper? Yet Bill Clinton and Sen. Dale Bumpers once crash-landed in an airplane getting there. What they do like is the admiration of crowds.

So it was with President Obama's membership in the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's Chicago congregation. Contrary to Mayor Cory Booker, there's nothing "nauseating" about saying so. Did Obama share Wright's impassioned racial views? Perhaps about as much as Catholics like me share the Vatican's pronouncements about birth control. As an outsider with an unusual biography, Obama joined a church that sent the same message to his South Side constituents the coon supper sends to rural Arkansans: "I'm one of you."

So when Obama changed constituents, he ended up having to change churches. Like most successful politicians, he's a shape-shifter. Most of us are OK with that. We know they're playing a role, but it's a role that flatters our self-importance. As long as they stay within hailing distance of reality, that is.

Then there's Mitt Romney, a politician who takes impersonation to a whole new level. Keep his story straight? The presumptive GOP nominee's been on so many sides of so many different issues, it's a wonder he can remember his own name. Has there ever been a presidential candidate who's so bad at pretending?

OK, Nixon. A scary thought for Democrats, actually. Certain voters obviously respond favorably to having their asses kissed — the more insincerely, the better. I imagine it makes them feel powerful.

Most, however, are looking for somebody to take their side. That's why if it were up to me, I'd erect billboards of that posed publicity photo of Romney and his associates at Bain Capital grinning maniacally with $20 bills falling out of their pockets and stuffed in their ears across every swing state. If pampering Wall Street bankers is your issue, Mitt's definitely your man.

For all the bloviating about whether it was sporting for the Obama campaign to point out that a much of Romney's personal fortune was gained by strip-mining companies of their assets, gaming the tax code, and leaving workers jobless — with looted pension plans and vanished health care benefits — it amazed me that so little attention was paid to the story that photo tells.

Short of hiring a George W. Bush impersonator to lead cheers at Romney rallies, it's the clearest visual evidence of who the GOP candidate is, and what he's all about. Workers to him were pixels on a screen. The end.

But it's Romney's inability to keep his story straight that's really apt to doom his candidacy. If there's one story GOP imagineers have successfully sold to millions of swing voters it's that deficit spending endangers prosperity. It's altogether false, but millions believe it. That President Obama has ignited what Romney calls "a prairie fire of debt" has become an article of faith.

So why wouldn't a newly elected President Romney propose getting rid of the Federal budget deficit during his first year in office? Time's ever-solicitous Mark Halperin asked in a recent interview. Romney's answer revealed that he believes little or nothing of what he (along virtually every Republican) has been saying over the past three years.

"Well because, if you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5%," Romney said. "That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression. So I'm not going to do that, of course...I don't want to have us go into a recession in order to balance the budget."

No rational person does want that; merely every Republican from sea to shining sea. Equally absurd, Romney also proposes sweeping tax cuts that would have the effect, according to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, of adding an additional $500 billion to the yearly deficit. And that's before Romney's promised boost in military spending.

There are really only two things to say. First, as Michael Tomasky points out, Romney understands that "what the GOP Congress has been doing for the past three years is [deliberately] wrecking the economy."

Second, he thinks most voters are economic illiterates who are easily fooled. It's scary to wonder if he's right.

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