I’m not sure if I like the way Mitt Romney likes things. As the newly empathic candidate was promising to kill Big Bird at Wednesday’s debate, did you notice how he backed into it?  

“I like PBS,” Romney started out. “I love Big Bird. I actually like you [to moderator Jim Lehrer] too. But I’m not going to—I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it. That’s number one.”

“Like” is a decaffeinated form of “love” when Mitt uses it, but it’s also a mild protest, a plea for understanding. He usually lays a slight stress on the word, as if he’s revealing some vaguely surprising truth—“You may see me as an unfeeling, uncaring, bottom-line guy, but let me tell you, I enjoy life. I like things.” This man, who is so buttoned-up he can’t be honest about what he’s running on—like whether or not he’d cut taxes for the rich or cover pre-existing conditions in his health plan—uses like to establish his personal bona fides. I’m like you, he’s saying, I have “likes.”

Of course, it helps that like is such a flexible word, meaning “similar,” “approve” and just acting as a rhetorical placeholder, like, well, whatever. Mitt does like (indeed, he requires) a certain flexibility about what he means when he uses words. And because some of his most awkward moments during the campaign have hung from his “I like” tic, you have to wonder what he’s really saying:

I like grits,” he said, “Strange things are happening to me.”

I like seeing the lakes. I love the lakes. There’s something very special here. The Great Lakes, but also all the little inland lakes that dot the parts of Michigan…”

I like all the amendments.”

At Wednesday’s debate, we learned a few more of Mitt’s most likable things:

“And by the way, I like coal.”

“I like the way we did it in Massachusetts. I like the fact that in my state, we had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together.”

“Now, I like green energy as well…”

And it’s true, all those things are meant to be slightly surprising, particularly when listed by a man at a podium who’s running for president, and worthy of the faint stress he lays upon the word. He’s often pandering, as any politician will. But I also think Mitt is working hard to redefine the word. The most famous example is, of course:

I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” And as PBS, Big Bird, and surely now even Jim Lehrer know, every man destroys the thing he likes.