10/16/2012 04:20 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Josh Mandel and Sherrod Brown Don't Get It

Yesterday we saw the first debate in what's been called the most expensive senate campaign in Ohio history. Republican wunderkind state Treasurer Josh Mandel is trying to unseat incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown. If this is indeed the most expensive campaign we've seen, we're not getting our money's worth.

Putting aside the circus-like atmosphere at The City Club of Cleveland, where a majority of the audience seemed to be there by virtue of the generosity of the campaigns (and cheered to prove it), the content of the candidates' comments were unsettling, devoid of nuance, and, at times, strangely illogical.

Sitting Senator Sherrod Brown gets a lot of love from readers here and lefties across the country and in Ohio. Few people have stronger pro-union bona fides, and they were on display from the word go: he used the beginning of his opening statement to thank the waitstaff at the Renaissance Hotel. As others have noted, there is nothing surprising about his positions--he's for the bailout, Obamacare and stimulus, and against free trade agreements.

Mandel, on the other hand, declared his steadfast antipathy for the bailouts, stimulus and health care reform. He basically sounded like any other GOP candidate with a firm grasp of the talking points, one who simultaneously decries the damage done to our country by "Washington insiders" while desperately trying to become one himself. It's discomfiting to be in the presence of a contradiction like that married to a lack of self awareness.

Senator Brown comes across as honest, earnest and hardworking. He is deeply partisan, but his stances have always seemed heartfelt to me, not the products of strategic decisions about the direction of his campaign. I always get the sense they're the result of some personal experience, or something he learned.

I happen to think his stance on trade and unions could benefit from a little nuance. For a guy who presents himself as sticking up for working class families, he seems uninterested in the economic benefits globalization has provided for the working class of developing nations. To his credit, he would argue that he isn't just trying to save American jobs; he's also trying improve working conditions for laborers in China, Mexico and other developing nations. Thing is, globalization has actually improved working conditions for a lot of people, and limiting trade with some of those nations limits the economic growth that is raising the standard of living in Asia and Latin America. Is there a middle ground? I expect there probably is, but it's hard to see from the far left.

With respect to Josh Mandel, the opposition campaign is doing enough to point out his youth, inexperience and ambition. And plenty of people have pointed out his annoying habit of not answering questions. Up until this debate, he has provided very little in the way of specifics, but he brought some today, and they were head scratchers.

--On Obamacare, the smaller government, no-tax candidate has advocated repeal but said wants to provide keep coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and possibly have the government provide it.

--Mandel suggested he would cut government by closing military bases in Europe and ending military aid to Pakistan. It wasn't clear how the US would continue the war in Afghanistan without a relationship with Pakistan. And it wasn't really clear whether existing NATO treaties would permit the closure of military bases in Europe, or if current military operations in the Gulf could be continued without those bases.

--On college access and tuition he blamed Senator Brown for the rise in tuition costs and declared the government should do more to help students pay for college. As long as it's a smaller government doing it, I guess.

--The candidate who has run a bruising hyperpartisan campaign claims he will "rise above partisanship." I wonder if he even understands why people in the audience giggled about that.

Look, I want a refund, but you don't get those in politics. The people paying for this to be the most expensive senate campaign in Ohio are getting what they paid for: it's partisan, it's ugly, and the candidates are on the extremes, hurling mud, hard pressed to speak about ideas. But that's what I'd really like to see and hear. I want to hear Sherrod Brown figure out how he could move to the center, collaborate and compromise occasionally. I want to hear our state Treasurer think out loud about the implications of his newfound foreign policy ideas. I want to hear these guys off their talking points, talking about what the purpose of government actually is.

These guys have two more chances to debate. We'll see if they take the opportunity to do that, rather than repeat what we witnessed this first time.