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So what did we learned from this interminable, down-to-the-wire presidential campaign?
For starters, we were reminded that even a too-close-to-call election can get tedious when you're pelted day after day by automated phone calls and finger-pointing fliers. If there is one word to describe American presidential campaigns, it's "excess."
There's too much money, too many flimsily documented accusations, and too much bumper-sticker oversimplification. Many voters would give all that up for one civil, substantive, revealing forum in which the candidates sat down at a table and clearly laid out their hopes and dreams. Such a setting would encourage aspirants to be themselves, rather than some consultant's creation for "winning" a debate.
Yet for all its shortcomings and generic flaws, the campaign of 2012 had its share of revealing moments.
Historians will undoubtedly look to the first debate as the time when Mitt Romney rose above his caricature as a mean-hearted bungler. Notwithstanding his subsequent loss, he came across as a candidate who understood the issues and who could go beyond campaigning to true governing. It will be a long time before a candidate again approaches one of these contests as a pro forma trifle.
Similarly, Barack Obama's decision to use his health care reform as a positive way to illustrate his philosophy of government helped the president re-infuse his campaign with idealism. The big, post-partisan dreams of 2008 have long since been buried, but the president reminded voters that he cares about those "others"--the members of society who haven't ridden capitalism to a "go it alone" lifestyle.
Using arguments like those, the president restored his stature in the last two debates as a leader who recognized the importance of re-earning voters' trust. It helped him win re-election.
Much of the dark side of the campaign can be traced to the millions of dollars spent by "independent" organizations supporting the candidates. These monied forces too often turned this election season into a crude slugfest of name-calling and history-twisting. Nuance and context don't fit on bumper stickers or in 30-second TV ads.
Indeed, it's a miracle that a process as fundamentally flawed as America's can still produce such strong leaders--a consolation to all of us who survived this latest quadrennial visitation of U.S. democracy.