Race to the Bottom

I had my first sit-down with Barack Obama in his Senate office. The sun was streaming in. He came around from behind his desk with that beaming smile, his tie loosened. He sat in a deep chair, his feet up on the coffee table. I was taken with his confidence, talent, grasp of the issues and buoyant charm: the real deal.

That was early in 2007.

Later that year I sat down with Mitt Romney on the Republican primary-season campaign trail. I had interviewed him years earlier, at his suburban Boston home. He hadn't changed a bit: chilly smile, wary but gracious, well informed, a mix of a steely mind, ferocious ambition and earnest Mormon good will: a class act.

Today I ask: where did those two men go? Or were they mirages? The way both have campaigned this year makes me wonder. Is there something about the presidency--or the pursuit of it--that attacks the character of men and women under its spell?

I ask because this has not been an uplifting, inspirational campaign year--unlike, say, 1984, when the voters genuinely agreed with President Ronald Reagan that it was "morning in America again"; or 2008, when Obama's victory was an epic affirmation of the ideal, if not always the reality, of racial justice in America.

Not this year. It has been a joyless slog of accusations and recriminations in a dreary time, when not enough is going as we had hoped, but voters are wary of alternatives and disdainful of politics itself.

The 2012 combatants claimed to have cared about big ideas, but really didn't; claimed to have traveled the high road, but mostly worked the down low; claimed to be talking about the future when they were mostly arguing about the past. This was supposed to be about letting the people speak, but often seemed like a top-down propaganda war among behemoth billionaires, their "independent" TV ads, social media and brute cash.

As for honesty, there is no false equivalency. The president trimmed, but Mitt was by far the more mendacious of the two. Once a moderate governor, he claimed this year in the GOP primaries to have been a "severely conservative" one. Then, in the national debates against the president, Romney tried to tack to port again.

The ideological twists required him to become (or reveal himself as) a guy with no compunction about ignoring--or rewriting--the facts of his political and business career, whether it was what he did and did not support as governor; what he did and did not do at Bain; and what he had or had not said in public.

The president is hardly blameless in this dismal season. He ran on fear, not hope; he ran essentially without a new agenda and spent most of his time and campaign dollars in a vicious--and ultimately unsuccessful--attempt to make Romney out to be a Mephistophelian combination of Gordon Gecko, Daddy Warbucks, Donald Trump and the man in spats on the Monopoly box.

It wasn't an approach worthy of who Obama is, or who we thought he was. But he and his crew decided that it was the only way to win.

The central, enduring image of the 2012 campaign took place on a "town hall" stage on Long Island, where the two men circled each other, stood toe-to-toe and talked over each other: two Harvard Law School graduates acting like WWF warm up acts.

To give some sense of nobility to what was essentially a dirty ground war, the two men painted their clash as a matter of grand philosophy: between Jefferson (Romney) and Hamilton (Obama); between the free market and the idea of federal government.

The truth is that both of them--and most voters--knew that the dispute was really more a matter of math: how to cut the federal pie. It has been a good ol' American war over Who Gets What. And both sides know where this ultimately will end: on some kind of compromise over taxes, spending and entitlements to show the world that we're plausibly committed to managing our finances.

The president expressed willingness to do a $4 trillion, ten-year debt-reduction deal (with a ratio of $2.50 in spending cuts, including Medicare, to $1 in new tax revenue). Republicans couldn't deliver, so Obama backed off. On the campaign trail, Romney joined the "severe conservatives" and refused to endorse even a $10-$1 deal. It was hardly a Profiles in Courage moment.

Democrats doubt that a President Romney would try to change course, let alone take on the GOP Tea Party. But the man is devoted to spreadsheets, and knows the deal called America won't "pencil," as they say in his world, without new revenues.

Meanwhile, he and the president spent the last, storm-tossed days of the 2012 campaign calling each other names in and around Ohio: something about Jeeps and who was telling the truth and where they are and will be made. (Answer: Not Romney.) It seemed a fitting finale for a presidential contest that never got off the ground.

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.