At first glance, it might seem as if Mitt Romney’s path — from voting in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary to being the 2012 Republican presidential nominee — was linear. But over the past, winding, 20 years, Romney has held every possible view on every possible issue — often at the same time. When it comes to policy, he’s been downright promiscuous.

He was for a woman’s right to choose before he was against it. He was for tax cuts for the rich before he was against them. He was for – no, he wrote – health reform before he was against it … before he was for the parts that everybody liked.

This isn’t a platform — it’s a punchline.

Now, 18 months into the presidential campaign, countless campaign events, interviews, a convention and a debate later, one thing is clear. Mitt Romney isn’t etch-a-sketching or flip-flopping. He’s being dishonest. And at Tuesday’s town hall debate, it’s time for the American people and the president to go the way of Joe Biden and call out his malarkey.

Why is Romney able to so seamlessly move from one view to another? And why is he getting away with it?

For one thing, much of the media treat the presidential election like a horse race, so Romney’s whirling dervish moves on policy are just part of the contest. Meanwhile, the extremist GOP base that once subjected its candidates to a battery of purity tests is now concentrated on ousting President Obama. And the GOP establishment is ready to forgive Romney for just about anything — as long as he wins.

Jolted with a fresh shot of post-debate energy, Romney is just doing more of what he’s always done — whatever it takes to get elected. This comes naturally because he is, fundamentally, a cipher. The only thing he believes is whatever is politically expedient in that given moment. And right now, he needs to be a hard-liner to get the GOP base to the polls — and a moderate to appeal to those last few independent voters.

His solution is to sign on to the fanatical policies of the extreme right, and then duck and cover to confuse independents about where he really stands.

This isn’t just bad for the nation — it’s insulting.

Still, Romney cannot erase his vice presidential pick’s record, one of the most extreme in an extreme Republican House of Representatives — especially when it comes to women’s health and economic security.

Paul Ryan co-sponsored “personhood” legislation, which would grant a fertilized egg more rights than women. He opposed abortion with no exceptions. He worked with Missouri Senate candidate and biology-class dropout Todd Akin on a bill to redefine rape. His infamous budget would eliminate funding for family planning and gut programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, that disproportionately affect women.

And despite Ryan’s professed obeisance to Catholic teachings, his budget is an outright rejection of the church’s teachings of compassion, justice and the common good. That’s why legions of nuns are traveling around the country on buses denouncing it.

And yet, at last week’s vice-presidential debate, Ryan decided to insult women by taking a page out of Romney’s playbook. When asked about his views on abortion, Ryan evaded. To her credit, moderator Martha Raddatz — whose star turn ought to shake the debate commission out of the dark ages and get it to start appointing more women to do the moderator job — didn’t let Ryan off the hook. Instead, she probed him: “Should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?”

Ryan replied, “We don’t think that unelected judges should make this decision; that people through their elected representatives in reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make this determination.”

Translation: A Romney-Ryan administration would stack the court with right-wing ideologues and overturn Roe v. Wade so that a bunch of male legislators, some of whom couldn’t tell a foot from a fallopian tube, can make decisions about women’s bodies.

But if Ryan tried (and failed) to soft pedal his anti-abortion absolutism, it’s because he now understands what Romney understands: They can’t tell the American people what they’ll really do on women’s health because it’s so abhorrent and unpopular.

But wait! cry indignant Republicans. Women voters care about more than reproductive health. They’re more than just the sum of their lady parts.

Indeed. But on every issue that matters to women — taxes, Medicare and Medicaid, the deficit, the budget, education, jobs, Wall Street reform, health reform — Romney and Ryan are being mendacious. They know that if the full-frontal fiscal fraudulence of their plans was revealed, the American people would say no.

Enough is enough. Romney’s campaign has made for great “Daily Show” segments. But we’re three weeks away from determining the next leader of the United States. And at this point, Romney is just insulting Americans — our intelligence, our values, our democracy — with the campaign he is running. Tuesday’s town hall debate is an opportunity for voters — and President Obama — to articulate the real consequences that Romney’s real policies will have on real people’s lives. So let’s hope that, at the debate, voters will finally demand that Romney get real.