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Don't like this policy? Mitt Romney's got another one

One thing I think we can all agree on is that politicians are to be sniffed at. There's a reason they come out ahead of used-car salesmen, bankers and journalists in surveys of the most despised professions: we can't trust the buggers.

They lie, they flip-flop, they say one thing and do another. We want statesmen, but always get saddled with opportunistic hacks.

Or do we, the people, protest too much? Maybe we get the leaders we deserve. Observing the American election, it's hard not to conclude that, contrary to the well-worn narrative, plenty of Americans quite like a generous dollop of cynicism with their politics.


If Mitt Romney is elected on November 5, then "Etch A Sketch" will surely enter the political lexicon and his campaign will become a much-imitated model.

On March 31 a Romney adviser was asked if his boss had tacked too far to the right in his quest to placate the Tea Party and gain the Republican nomination. He replied, "I think you can hit the reset button for the campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."

(For those of a younger age, Etch A Sketch was a mechanical drawing toy; turn it upside down and shake it and what you'd drawn disappeared from the screen.)

At the time the comment was viewed as a hideous gaffe, a from-the-horse's-mouth confirmation that the man who would be president was a weathervane, a soulless fat cat whose sense of entitlement extended all the way to the White House.

But rather than recoil when Romney went and did exactly what his adviser said he would do, the electorate warmed to him. Before the first presidential debate, the self-described "severe conservative" went into a phone box and Moderate Mitt came out. Aided, it must be said, by Obama's listless, disengaged performance, the great switcheroo gave game-changing momentum to a campaign that had been eating dust.

In the final debate, which focused on foreign policy, Romney's makeover took on surreal proportions. Having for months assailed Obama for fiddling while Iran tries to arm itself with nuclear weapons, "throwing Israel under a bus" and generally being a weak, vacillating actor on the world stage, Romney unveiled a foreign policy that would essentially be a seamless transition from the past four years.

The conservative commentariat pronounced this a masterstroke: Romney was "presidential", they said; he had assured the electorate that he'd be a safe pair of hands rather than a trigger-happy adventurist like the last Republican president.

Once again one can only gasp at the bare-faced hypocrisy of those who now approve of Romney borrowing policies they have spent four years denouncing as dangerously misguided.

Whether he'd implement them is another matter. If a candidate wins by changing his tune and switching positions, he can't be held to any of them. Once in office he can execute another 180-degree turn, or go off in a completely unheralded direction. And when challenged, he can say, "Hey, it's Etch A Sketch. That's what the people voted for."

George McGovern, who died this week aged 90, was one of the most honourable men to have run for president and look where it got him: as the Democrat candidate in 1972 he was brutally rejected, losing to Richard Nixon by 61 per cent to 37 per cent in the popular vote and 520-17 in the Electoral College.

That's right - Tricky Dicky Nixon, who 21 months later was chased out of the White House for presiding over a criminal conspiracy that came to be known as the Watergate scandal.

Although we tend to think of America as a country which venerates war heroes, the opposite is true in presidential politics.

McGovern, a bomber pilot who flew 35 missions over enemy territory during World War II, was trounced by Nixon who never went near the front line.

Bob Dole, who spent three years recovering from his war wounds, was easily seen off by Bill Clinton. John Kerry, winner of five combat medals, was defeated by George W. Bush, who sat out the Vietnam war in the Texas Air National Guard. John McCain, a PoW for six years, lost to Obama.

Although neither Obama nor Romney donned a uniform, we have it on Ann Romney's authority that being a Mormon missionary is like serving in the military.

I guess selling Mormonism in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan could be a tough gig, but her husband went to France.

You say stuff like that when you believe people will swallow anything.