11/09/2012 02:34 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Sifting Through the Ashes; Lessons From the 2012 Election

We've already heard criticism that the 2012 presidential election was shallow and inconclusive; that both candidates refused to discuss the really important issues facing the country; to say anything specific; to lay out real agendas and let the public decide which course the nation should take.

That's BS. The issues and values that defined and separated President Barack Obama, Governor Mitt Romney and their political parties could not have been more clearly etched into the public consciousness and could not have been more clearly addressed by the electorate.

It's certainly true that neither candidate presented a detailed, CBO-scored budget plan to reform the tax system, cut wasteful federal spending, strengthen Social Security and Medicare, and aim the entire budget federal budget process toward some semblance of balance. In its purest state, such a plan would have been totally incomprehensible to most Americans. But it would have been ripped to shreds within microseconds, distorted and misquoted beyond all recognition, and no matter who won the election, their plan would face intractable opposition in Congress.

We didn't have that detailed budget debate, but we did have a full-throated brawl about government's broad spending priorities, and that's essential because government spending reflects our values. Government spending tells the world, "This is what we believe is important; what we believe is right. This is who we are."

And, we had a rip-roaring argument about social issues, most of which really boiled down to how we want to be treated by government and by each other. It's true that all these issues weren't debated by the two presidential candidates. Some emerged during the Republican Primary and people remembered what they'd heard. Some issues weren't the subject of discussion at all, but the object of legislative or executive action in Congress and statehouses across the country. Yet they were part of the election dialog just a surely as if they'd been the first question in every presidential debate.

So big issues were definitely part of the 2012 presidential election. And, when the all dust settles, here's what we've learned:

Most Americans neither hate their government nor believe it's the root of all evil. They agree that sometimes it can go too far and sometimes not move fast enough. But basically, they realize our government is only as good or bad as we make it. And, they don't believe our sainted forefathers set out to create the most limited government possible and leave everything else to be contracted out to the private sector.

They believe that one of government's first responsibilities is to make sure that when the Declaration of Independence said, "We the people," it meant all of us. That means government shouldn't be trying to take away a woman's right to make the most personal decisions. It means that a person's sexual orientation shouldn't determine what they can and can't legally do anymore than their eye color. It means that government at any level should never ever be in the business of trying to prevent people from participating in the electoral process.

They believe we're all part of the American family. Most Americans recognize that the family is changing. We're younger. There are more women. Our complexion has more shades than it once did, and more accents. But we're all still family. And in a family, everyone may not succeed, but everyone gets a fair shot. And when someone in the family needs help, we don't ask for an ID, we help.

We learned that, despite Citizens United, perhaps the most shameful U.S. Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott, our elections are not for sale. The public saw PACs and Super PACs, and shadowy organizations that call themselves Social Welfare Organizations, 501(c)(4)s under the Internal Revenue Service code, which operate "only to promote social welfare to benefit the community," but are clearly special interest organizations, spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising to attack President Obama. They saw a few billionaires make individual contributions to candidates -- Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson personally gave Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney $53 million. They saw professional wrestling magnate Linda McMahon spend $100 million of her own money in two campaigns for the U.S. Senate. And all for nothing. They were all rejected by most Americans.

And perhaps the clearest lesson to be learned from the 2012 election is that the vast majority of the American public -- more than 80% in some exit polls -- has had enough of our Kamikaze Congress; with the idea that compromise is a dirty word and working together is unthinkable.

These are just a few of the more obvious lessons from the election. House Speaker John Boehner may have learned something. His initial comments after the election at least sounded like he might be ready to work with the White House on the debt ceiling issue.

However, not everyone learns, no matter how obvious the lesson. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell didn't appear to embrace the voters' unmistakable message, saying last night, "Now it's time for the president to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a closely divided Senate..."

Some people learn by being told; some people learn by being showed; and some just have to go ahead and pee on the electric fence to learn the lesson. We will see soon if Senator McConnell is an electric fence peer or not.

The candidates in the 2012 election may or may not have addressed big issues, but there is no doubt that the voters did.