There's no way around it. The three presidential debates between President Obama and Gov. Romney were, frankly, vapid and uninspiring.
Gov. Romney's move to the center was such a contrast to the man we saw in the Republican primaries that it leaves one wondering what is at the core of this man.
President Obama? His debate performances were so far gone from "Yes, We Can!" it's hard to even remember what he was like back then. Basically, he went from "Yes, We Can!" to "Whatever it Takes to Win."
Nothing wrong with winning. Can't govern if you don't win. But win to do what? Be the guy in power? Be President? I hope -- yes, I still hope! -- it's more than that.
Boil down the presidential debates and here's what we're left with: two salesmen saying what it takes to eke out a narrow victory, pitching their wares to an incredibly narrow slice of undecideds in swing states and leaving the rest of us out in the cold. In that way they were, oddly, very much alike, the political version of The Odd Couple, Oscar and Felix, trying to coexist in the same political space.
Trying to sell the undecideds on the notion that the other guy is worse, that you should be afraid of the other guy, is depressing for the rest of us for sure, and probably for the undecideds, too.
And then there's "the vision thing," as the elder President Bush called it. No vision in these debates. Just sales talk about "growing the middle class." Again, it's a good thing, a very good thing, to have people rise out of poverty. But heaven forbid we should actually mention the poor, unless they're used as a club to beat up the other guy (e.g. food stamps).
And compassion? Forget it. For President Obama, well, he doesn't want to remind folks that things aren't as good as we want them to be, or that "big government" is here to make folks dependent and not self-reliant. Talking about helping the poor is like talking about his own failures. So skip compassion.
Gov. Romney and compassion? Connecting these together is a bit jarring, isn't it? Gone, way gone in some political galaxy far far away, is any mention of being a "compassionate conservative." That's way too George W., and we don't want to remind undecideds of him. And compassion certainly doesn't go well with the Republican platform and House budgets concocted to please the libertarian and Randian Tea Partiers. When the less fortunate are seen as "takers" and "moochers," well, forget compassion. Best not to remind folks that a guiding idea behind your party's platform and budgets is to take from the weak to give to the strong.
But here's the thing. Compassion is the measure of any society worth a rip. And real leaders know how to talk about it in a way that inspires us all.
Real leadership also includes talking about big challenges like climate change. Ten years from now -- heck, maybe even five years from now -- people are going to look back at this election and understand it for what it is: the most important election ever for the greatest moral challenge of our time, overcoming global warming. And yet literally not one word was spoken about climate change in all four debates, including the vice presidential debate.
This represents a profound failure of moral leadership on behalf of all of the candidates. But not only them. The moderators utterly failed here as well. It's their job to raise major issues that the candidates are dodging, to put them on the spot. Frankly, they pandered to the tyranny of the here and now. To heck with the future. Maybe as journalists they simply can't look to the horizon. Sad.
But what about those who are supposed to care about climate change, the environmentalists? Here's what one gentleman with a stuffed polar bear said to our Young Evangelicals For Climate Action group gathered at Hofstra to have a prayer rally before the second presidential debate: "You're here. But where are the environmental groups?" In this presidential campaign, they were no-shows by and large, too scared to bring it up. Really sad.
Being too afraid to stand up, trying to make undecideds fear the other guy -- well, somebody's gonna win with this strategy. Just not the country.
We're better than this. We should demand more from our leaders -- and ourselves.
The Rev. Jim Ball, Ph.D., is author of 'Global Warming and the Risen LORD.'