And so it goes again: Democrats claim a knockout, Republicans demur. But as I tweeted last night, if that debate changed your opinion, you probably shouldn't be voting. Even low-information voters could not possibly have learned anything—unless they were uncertain about whether America needs to lead. Because it does, you know. America is an indispensable world leader, and we need to show our leadership role by leading. With strong leadership.
The true object of these debates is to say as little as possible about anything of substance. Mitt Romney promises to be Obama Lite, with one third less social democracy than regular Barack Obama—but fortified with a full day's RDA of social conservatism! Barack Obama claims that Mitt Romney only wants to be president so that he can invest the Social Security trust fund in companies that will ship all our jobs to China—jobs that under Barack Obama would be done by hard-working American robots. It is a carnival of claptrap, a festival of flapdoodle.
Questions that have meanwhile gone unanswered?
What role does America have in the European financial crisis? What sort of monetary policy should we have? What will your administration do about climate change? How are we going to handle the fiscal cliff?
Hmmm, I don't know, but are you aware that President Obama killed Osama bin Laden with his bare hands?
Mitt Romney promises a big tax cut that is supposed to unleash the magic of supply side growth, but you can tell his heart isn't really in it; he was walking it back by the first debate, and has now basically promised to enact a tax cut only if it doesn't grow the deficit—which is to say, not to enact one. And this never-never tepid retread of a Bush-era policy is, incredibly, the only actual policy on offer. In essence, Obama's message is: "Put me in office so that I can maybe achieve some low-priority items from my 2008 platform." Plus not be Mitt Romney. His debate strategy has been to wait for Mitt Romney to state a policy goal, and then say that he knows that this is not true, and that in fact, Mitt Romney wants to do something quite different, like put bars on kitchen doors so that women can't get out. The Psychic Friends President is quite a jarring descent from "Hope and change."
It is tempting to blame the candidates, but ultimately, I blame the situation. The candidates do not have a big program, because there is no money to pay for big programs. Whoever spends the next four years is going to have to do some unpleasant things to taxes and spending. No one wants to hear about those things, and they certainly don't want to tell us about them. And so we have piddling personal attacks, half-hearted promises, and vapid reaffirmations that America is so great because it's exceptional, and exceptional because it's America.
All debates have this sort of inspirational banality, but never before has it been the entire substance of the conversation. Candidates in previous elections at least had something they were planning to do. It might have been unlikely, or unwise, but there was some sort of a platform for their low-altitude flights of rhetoric. Now that's all there is: the president and Mitt Romney, squabbling like cousins who know that only one of them can inherit Grandpa's mint-condition Mustang. The result is what one commentator last night aptly called the "angry hug," as the candidates try to differentiate themselves without saying anything very definite about anything.
And let's be honest, who can blame them? If either one actually tells the American public what will be involved in getting back to fiscal sustainability—that "smaller government" means "cutting middle-class entitlements," and that the gap cannot be entirely, or even mostly closed by levying heavier taxes on people who make more than $250,000 a year—then the American public will vote en masse for his opponent. We want them to lie to us. We reward them for lying to us. So frankly, we should be grateful that they've confined themselves to bad budget math and unlikely promises of job growth—green or conventional.
There are, of course, issues that will matter, like what Supreme Court justices get appointed, and who will be implementing ObamaCare. But neither candidate is in a good position to be debating ObamaCare—Obama because it is still unpopular, Romney because it still sounds ridiculous when he tries to differentiate the national program from the one he enacted in Massachusetts. And though we all understand that there is an escalating war over the composition of the Supreme Court, it is one of those things that cannot actually be said aloud—at least not by the men we are trusting to lock in our policy preferences for the next few decades by packing the court.
The irony is that the next four years will be incredibly important. We are going to have to do something about our $1 trillion deficit. Leading the nation through those painful choices will require a courage, a patience, and a humility that neither man has so far displayed in these debates. But instead we are getting the flapdoodle campaign, in which more and more ado is made about less and less. The higher the stakes, the lower the information our candidates seem willing to give us. Four years from now, I expect to see the presidential debates conducted entirely in mime.