MIAMI - What a long, strange trip it's been to election day. And I doubt it will end on election day. The final results in some races will be days coming and accompanied by law suits. The reason won't be hanging chads, but ballots rejected by canvassing boards.
What have we learned along the way? That the conventional wisdom in this election cycle has often been predictable, banal and wrong. That money is still the mother's milk of politics. That the Citizens United decision has skewed the electoral process in favor of the rich and powerful in profoundly anti-democratic ways. That Super PACs are an abomination. That political rascals and scoundrels are usually, but not always, found out. That candidates who aspire to serve the public before themselves are rare indeed.
We also saw the presidential TV debates, normally good political theater but not determinative, become the turning points in the campaign. The Denver debate, especially, changed the trajectory and tone of the presidential race. Mitt Romney in 90 minutes undid months of Obama ads painting him as an uncaring, out-of-touch plutocrat. Instead, he came off as thoughtful and moderate, not the "severe conservative" we saw in the GOP primary. President Obama, as so many have noted, came off as not just disengaged but unprepared and ill informed. Also, arrogant, disinterested, and hang-dog. Diminished.
It was as bad a performance as any I've ever seen by a president at a critical juncture and one from which Obama has never fully recovered. It was his Wizard of Oz moment: The curtain was pulled back and instead of the mighty Oz we saw the flawed and fungible man behind the curtain.
SPECIAL SECTION: Vote 2012
If the debates were the best two out of three, you could say that Obama was the winner. He was good in the second and better in the third despite the snark. Obama's patronizing comments about "horses and bayonets" were uncalled for. But this wasn't a best two-out-of-three proposition. The first debate was the one that counted most, especially when 70 million Americans, many of whom hadn't made up their minds, were watching. Obama's abysmal performance shook their confidence in ways that may be irreparable. Great political leaders, like great athletes, step up when it matters most. They raise the level of their game. Obama lowered his. As David Letterman told Joaquin Phoenix after his disastrous appearance on The Late Show, "I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight."
Mitt Romney has raised the level of his game since winning the nomination. But when you've been running for president for six years you should be able to. The problem, as many have noted, is knowing which Romney to believe. Is it the moderate and pragmatic Romney who was governor of Massachusetts, the right-wing ideologue of the primary debates or the centrist-sounding Romney of the last few weeks? We have no way of knowing, short of electing him to find out. What we know for sure is that he would approach America's economic (and social) problems the way he learned at Harvard Business School and later at Bain: Reduce the problem to its component parts, throw out the ones that can't be fixed, repair those that can, write a new business plan and sell at a profit. But that's easier in the private sector than in government where you have two co-equal branches that are often odds with the executive.
Romney often sounds like the problems in Washington are more a management than leadership issue. Florida, you'll recall, elected a businessman as governor with a similar philosophy and approach. How's that working out for ya?
We've come to know both candidates well in the last few months. Perhaps too well. Familiarity breeds contempt, as the old saying goes. There was Obama's "You didn't build that" comment at a rally in Virginia and Romney's "47 per cent" comment at a fund-raiser in Boca Raton. Both remarks peeled back the veneer of the two candidates in ways that don't inspire confidence. Now Romney is presenting himself as the bearer of "big ideas" (which ones are a mystery) and an agent for change---when his entire campaign has been retro, a promise to "take back the country."
Obama, meantime, keeps saying "We've come too far to turn back now," but offers no overarching vision for the future except more of the same. He simply promises that we'll go "Forward!" The destination isn't clear.
These are our choices. Two decent, complex and imperfect candidates. I'll vote for one of them repeating Winston Churchill's mantra: "Democracy is.the worst form of government. Except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time." Amen.
Copyright 2012 by Post Newsweek. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.