Putting aside for the moment Obama's woeful, and perhaps psychologically revealing performance last night, what about Romney? What he did was, by any measure, extraordinary -- not in its effectiveness, per se, but in its daring.
First of all, he lied serially and with no apparent fear of being called on any of it. He demonstrated utter contempt for the voting public, treated everybody as "low-information voters" who would take his reinvention last night at face value. Whatever else you can say about it, it's not cautious. But even more, he totally pivoted, throwing his wingnut Tea Party base off the train, under the bus... pick your vehicular cliche. Apparently, he doesn't fear them, either. He may have figured that they'd be so happy seeing Obama get beat up that they'd cheer their guy regardless of what he said. Again, maybe that's smart (it's certainly what everybody expected him to Etch-a-Sketch to a long time ago)... but it's not for the faint of heart, not in this high-drama, high-stakes venue.
What, I ask myself, is one to make of this Hail Mary pass? Was it his plan all along? Fine, David Remnick doesn't think Obama was doing rope-a-dope last night... but has Romney been doing just that for the past six months? And if so, whom was he looking to deceive? Was it his base -- giving them as much time and evidence as possible to convince themselves that they could actually pull the lever for him? Was it the Obama campaign, leading them to get complacent? Was it the media, laying the groundwork for a dramatic, last-second reversal of fortune (always a sexy narrative)? Was it all of the above?
If it was a long-hatched plan, what that suggests is a certain level of desperation -- and an Errol Flynn derring-do response. It suggests that he and his campaign looked at something early on that convinced them they could only win this thing through a dramatic narrative that they would have to construct -- a la Witness for the Prosecution.
What might have convinced them of that? Maybe it comes from knowing their base. Maybe if you knew how crazy those folks really are, how ready they are to desert the GOP on Nov. 6, you'd come to the conclusion that you do have to pay maximum lip service to their deranged views and feelings.
Maybe it was the economic numbers. Maybe they looked at the general trajectories and decided that things just weren't going to be bad enough for the people to throw Obama out. Maybe they were waiting on what the EU would do, and when Mario Draghi took action, they concluded that that hurricane wouldn't hit our shores before the election.
Maybe it was a broader sense of the dissolution of the Republican Party. Maybe they knew that this asylum that tries to pass as a coalition simply cannot be held together for more than five minutes -- so you shouldn't really begin your campaign until the last second.
Whatever the reason, the bet was a bold one. And then the pass-launching quarterback was blessed with remarkable good luck -- an opponent who came into the ring not as Muhammed Ali, or even Joe Frazier, but as Bartleby the Scrivener.
Only thing is, there's still time on the clock. Our own quarterback may have lost interest in the game, but there's a sideline full of people who actually want to win. And together, they may be able to put together enough fourth-quarter drives -- you know, using the wildcat or short passes... or, at least, a stout enough defense -- to hold onto the lead and run out the clock.
You gotta hand it to Mitt, though. There really wasn't anything in his past that suggested this level of daring. Whatever else it tells you, it says that he really wants this thing. Which is more than you can say, it seems, for his opponent.
Update: When David Brooks is wrong -- and that is often -- he usually errs on the side of naivete. Tomorrow's column argues that the real Mitt has escaped from his Tea Party handlers to give forth a proud, full-throated roar of moderation. He says that the only option Obama has in response to this pivot is to perform one of his own -- to switch from the accusation of extremism to one of making flippy floppy.
Well, to paraphrase our late-awakening president, this David Brooks should talk to Monday's David Brooks. That one had, with unintentional truth-telling, revealed the obvious alternate strategy: You continue to accuse Romney of being a conservative ideologue -- and add that he's a liar.
That's what Obama did today. Will it stick? Remains to be seen. "Liar" is more aggressive than "flip-flopper," and Obama doesn't like to be aggressive, but the shoe does fit. It fits the guy who created the prototype for Obamacare, only to demonize it for a year and swear he'll repeal it on day one of his presidency (as if). It fits the guy who doesn't just change from the $5 Trillion Man to the Lone Ranger in a flash, but denies that he ever said the other thing in the first place (you know, the thing that's in the party platform, that the Republican House passed with nary a dissent, that Romney repeated over and over). And he did so with pathological insouciance. Yeah, liar can stick.
Indeed, one of the highest-risk bets of Romney's Hail Mary is that people will only pay attention to last night -- and, presumably, the next month -- and not the previous year. That they'll look at this only as an election between Moderate Competent Romney and Moderate Incompetent Obama, ignoring the party Romney represents. And that they'll believe that the Romney now playing the compassionate conservative in public is the real one, rather than the shockingly cynical, heartless plutocrat of the "47 percent" conversation in private. It might work, but as I say, it's definitely a high-risk bet. Especially given the existence of that video. Expect to see it a whole lot for the next month.