Both campaigns, in the closing stretch, seem not fully worthy of the moment. We are in crisis—a once-in-a-century event, as we now say. And what we got from the candidates, in this week's presidential debate, was a bunch of gummy meanderings—smooth, rounded sentences so full of focus-grouped inanities that six minutes in viewers entered a kind of trance in which we almost immediately gave up on trying to wrest meaning from what was being said and instead focused on mere impressions. The look of things. The men on the plane, the pseudo-tough political operatives who surround both candidates, sometimes grouse, in private, that it's all symbols now, all mood, all about the visual.
But they have some real responsibility here. They send their candidates out to speak such thin gruel, such spat-out porridge, that we are struck dumb, and left daydreaming about the fact that Mr. Obama's suits are always slate gray and never seem to wrinkle, and Mr. McCain tonight seems like a rabbity forest creature darting amid the hedgerows.
As to what they will do about the crisis, Mr. Obama will raise taxes on the rich and help us weatherize our homes, while Mr. McCain favors "energy independence" and buying up mortgages. On the causes of the crisis they spoke of insufficient regulation, or high spending.
But these were not the great causes. Neither party has clean hands. Or rather, both parties have dirty hands. Here is the truth, spoken by the increasingly impressive Sen. Tom Coburn: "The root of the problem is political greed in Congress. Members . . . from both parties wanted short-term political credit for promoting homeownership even though they were putting our entire economy at risk by encouraging people to buy homes they couldn't afford. Then, instead of conducting thorough oversight and correcting obvious problems with unstable entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, members of Congress chose to . . . distract themselves with unprecedented amounts of pork-barrel spending." That is the truth.
And yet at the debate, when one citizen-questioner invited both candidates to think aloud about the responsibility of our representatives in Washington, they both gently suggested she was cynical.
She was not cynical. She was informed.
Why would anyone trust either candidate to help dig us out of this if they can't speak frankly about what got us into it?
One had the sense this week that our entire political class is playing Frisbee on the edge of a precipice, that no one is being serious enough, honest enough, that it's all too revved, too intense, and yet too shallow. I have grown impatient with the strategists from the campaigns, the little blond monsters who go on cable TV to give us their bouncy, aggressive, tendentious talking points. They are like the men on the plane, the gargoyles with BlackBerrys who think the race is about them and their personal win/loss ratio, who think history is their plaything, who stay up with the press in the bar sipping Perrier and calling it seltzer, and who advise their candidates, in essence, to talk down to the voters, to the American people. They treat every crisis as if it is a political fact to be used for gain or loss, and not as a real crisis, something that deserves a response of gravity and seriousness.
It is asking a lot to ask a political animal to be thoughtful, because they find meaning in action. They are propelled through life by the force of their hunger. But now and then you want to see them think. You want to see them speak the truth. This is one of those times.
The photo above is from Gothamist.