Not so long ago, many believed the advent of social media would contribute to more substantive discourse in modern campaigns.
But no such luck in our hotly contested presidential race. Sideshows have ruled the day. From caged dogs on car roofs to birth certificates to out-of-context alleged gaffes, it's been "gotcha politics" played out in real time.
If it seems the daily one-hit wonder stories enjoy a longer than normal shelf life, they do. Well-financed super PACs are at least partly to blame. They have the ability to sustain a nonstory for weeks through relentless 30-second attack ads. And the coffers are always well-stocked with wealthy benefactors from the right and left.
The tenor of Campaign 2012 has contributed to the problem as well. Some on the right continue to focus on issues (Reverend Wright, Bill Ayers, community activists) that were litigated four years ago. That the president's background and worldview were not fully vetted by a compliant media in 2008 is now beside the point. This election is about the president's record over the past four years — and whether the American people want more of the same over the next four years.
From the left, it's been a bellicose campaign of class envy. "Hope" and "change" are long forgotten. Today, it's all about division: black vs. white, poor vs. wealthy, urban vs. rural — and, to a lesser extent, secular vs. religious.
These dueling narratives make for delicious confrontations, which in turn lead the nightly (or is it hourly?) news. But they fail to educate. They fail to require the candidates to engage in "second level" thinking where the "why" is as important as the "what."
It was with this background that the candidates appeared in Denver on Wednesday night. Finally, an opportunity to observe two smart men engage in substantive debate. At long last, real conversation without the low road of innuendo and outright falsehood.
Some of us hoped for a credible conversation about the realities of a $16 trillion national debt and unsustainable entitlement spending. Others desired an honest analysis of what a fully implemented "Obamacare" will mean for the cost and quality of American health care. Everyone wanted (and deserved) a heavy dose of the kind of dialogue dispensed by serious leaders in serious times.
For the most part, that's what we got. And it was pretty entertaining to boot.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney displayed the form exhibited during the GOP primaries. He was crisp, nimble and well prepared. Importantly, he demonstrated the type of focused delivery that looked ... well, presidential.
In the process, the Romney campaign accomplished its primary goal: raising a likability factor that had taken a major hit since the "47 percent" video was leaked in mid-September. That leak and the Democrats' skillful manipulation of the comment into their "Mitt is out of touch" narrative had bumped President Barack Obama into a slight lead in a number of toss-up states.
In Denver, the challenger was still the CEO driving an unapologetic pro-business agenda. Such is the essential Romney, like it or not. But this night, for the first time in the general election campaign, an empathetic leader emerged: a leader with a determination (and plan) to strengthen America's romanticized but besieged middle class.
Almost predictably, the president appeared flat, robotic and increasingly frustrated with the proceedings.
Despite my Romney stripes, I was somewhat empathetic regarding this general mindset. It's more difficult being the incumbent. An incumbent has a record. Records are fair game. And this particular record is not so shiny — particularly with regard to the U.S. economy.
So the president took his lumps while answering with mostly familiar campaign themes: The wealthy fail to pay their fair share; the Obama Administration inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression; and Obamacare is a good deal for America.
On this night, however, the lines fell flat.
All voters beware. There are two remaining presidential debates. There will be a vice presidential debate. And don't forget the thousands of ads, millions of dollars and zillions of polls yet to come.
In political terms, that's a lifetime — maybe two.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics, and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is email@example.com.