12/21/2007 03:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

2008 -- Your Choice: Empty or Extreme

I have a distinction you won't envy. I saw or heard every presidential debate but one and read all the transcripts. What did I learn? This: For passionate idealism and timely analysis of issues, I'd have been better off watching reruns of Boston Legal.

If you're more into 'character' than issues, you may feel otherwise. The debates were like reality TV shows but with less attractive contestants. On 'real' reality shows, if I may draw that distinction, backbiting is straightforward, as opposed to merely transparent.

Nobody on Survivor: China has spokespeople do their dirty work, nor would they quote something you said in kindergarten as proof of overweening ambition. You have to hand it to the Survivor crowd: they keep it real and they keep it current.

If candidates spent as much time on issues as they spend dissecting each other's alleged character flaws, they'd have figured out not just health care and global warming but world peace, cancer and perhaps time travel.

Instead we got Rudy on Mexicans mowing Mitt's lawn; Mitt on New York; Hillary on Barack inhaling; Huckabee on whether Mitt thinks Satan and Jesus are brothers. What Huckabee really thinks is that Satan and Mitt are brothers, which only seems crazy until you remember that Cheney and Obama are cousins.

Huckabee's approach, like his campaign, slowly caught on. A Hardball tease asked: "Hillary Clinton: She-Devil?" When Chris Matthews interviewed hired guns Joe Trippi (Edwards) David Axelrod (Obama) and Mark Penn (Clinton) the dialogue ranged from childish to demonic, with endless rounds of 'you hit me first' and 'you're a liar.' One wondered where their parents were.

Matthews asked the three Jedis-- with apparent sincerity he called them 'star fighters'--to sum up their messages. Talk about the same old swill. Penn said Hillary's ready to lead. Trippi said Edwards will fight the greedy special interests. Axelrod said Obama will end the Washington "food fight."

Democrats treat debates like Def Poetry Jam, with a prize for whoever spins the best metaphor. I don't care which candidate will 'turn the page,' will be a 'change agent' or has 'the experience to lead on day one.' I want to know who will stop global warming, get us out of Iraq, fix health care and balance the budget.

The debates showcased each party's trademark weakness. The Democrats' is emptiness. The Republicans' is extremism. The Republicans will probably nominate the first candidate to personally shoot an illegal immigrant.

After the Republican CNN YouTube debate, GOP strategists whined that CNN conspired against them by over-sampling gun owners, fundamentalists and conspiracy theorists, thus turning the candidates into cartoons.

The story died within the news cycle because everyone knows the candidates want to be cartoons. To credit Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer for an effect the men on stage work so hard to achieve seemed unfair.

Democrats have an edge on "the future". When Mitt's on message he says words like "hope" "optimism" and "future" over and over, like an animatronic Reagan. But Republicans including Mitt aim to divide and conquer by fear, which undercuts any message about the future not pinned to The End of Days.

The risk for Democrats is that their talk of facing up to problems may remind voters to ask for solutions. Democrats regard solutions as so off message. One can easily imagine voters declining an invitation to a future full of big questions and no answers.

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death Neil Postman argued that television by its nature trivializes all public discourse by reducing it to mere entertainment. Today his once novel idea is close to received wisdom. It would matter less if the only effect was on campaigns but it goes beyond them.

You may notice that Congress, that engine of democracy, has lately stalled out. Pick an issue: the national debt, public health. Both parties have plans, or rather bills. If Democrats passed theirs tomorrow, nothing would change. If Republicans passed theirs, things would actually get worse.

The same's true of most issues, as seen in the recent energy bill. Democrats' fuel efficiency standards are great unless you happen to think global warming is real. Republican wins on taxes will actually slow the revolution in renewable energy.

A government eventually becomes like the campaign that gave it birth. What we call gridlock must be seen in this light; the end result of campaigns without substance or mandates. A trivial campaign feels like a mere annoyance. A trivial government is how a country commits suicide.

As we run out of money, energy, water and time, candidates argue over who's manly enough to get us into the next war or whose health care plan best mimics real reform. It's just another show until one day, you can no longer change the channel.