09/24/2012 04:20 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

Paper or Plastic

There is occasionally news that emanates from other parts of the world that Americans find curious. We find it odd when a man due to assume his government's leadership disappears for fourteen days with not even a head-clearing hike on the Great Wall as explanation, or when a government executes domestic enemies on foreign soil using polonium flavored Tetley's. But when these events are the work of leaders of the second largest economy and largest nuclear arsenal respectively, we wonder 'How can it be, and how worrisome is it that such advanced countries act like tin-pot banana republics'?

But what must outsiders make of us? There has historically been eye rolling from abroad at a range of norms here -- from our low regard for the theory of evolution to our high regard for incarceration.

On the current-events front, let's consider our presidential campaign. We are the richest and third most populous country in the world. We attract the most industrious people from around the globe, yet these are our candidates? This is our campaign?

To be certain, both men are exceptional compared to most of us. Obama by all appearances is a good, smart man with the Je ne sais quoi to come from nowhere to be president. Romney also appears likeable and decent while being a success in everything he has touched -- no mean feat no matter how prominent your parents.

But are they among the most exceptional leaders a country as large and advanced as ours can produce? Obama is neither the improbable combination of Hitler and Lenin as the Right would purport, nor is he the mix of JFK and Martin Luther King as those on the Left had hoped. When I wrote ' Je ne sais quoi' I meant that literally -- I really don't know what propelled him to this height. It wasn't prior experience or achievement in elected office. As for his vaunted speaking skills, I'm afraid the emperor has no clothes. Other than his 2004 keynote, where are the persuasive speeches? He relies to a large extent on the rhetorical device the 'ascending tricolon' (aka the 'friends, Romans, COUNTRYMEN' technique which like antibiotics in hospitals and violence in movies, is more effective used sparingly.

The proof of his inability to move through speech is in the pudding: if he were the orator he is purported to be he would have been able to push across more, or even some, of his agenda. All he has to show for his first term is a toothless health care bill that doesn't address the two main problems in the system: doctors incentivized to prescribe rather than to cure, and insurance that covers non-catastrophic treatments. And before we blame Republicans for their obvious obstructionism, we should recognize that conservatives would have suffered electoral backlash for their actions rather than midterm gains had Obama convinced the country that his was the right path.

And then there is Mitt Romney, from whom Obama was only recently able to distance himself. Mitt is as clunky a politician as he is accomplished family and business man. What must foreigners think of our political process when they hear Romney's musings on proper tree height or the whereabouts of his wife's Olympic horse. This to say nothing of his religion of choice -- I am all for freedom of religion (bold statement there), but why do we patronize those that believed in Zeus and Poseidon while one of our finalists in the presidential election believes in the writings of an ancient American civilization that has as much evidence of having existed as does Atlantis?

But can we be surprised about our candidates given the nature of our campaigns? The race is a testament to quantity over quality, style over substance, and wishful thinking over logic (ascending tricolon intended ). The recent hubbub over the Romney fundraiser wherein he states some well-known facts, and describes his campaign strategy given those facts, is a case in point. I can't see anything newsworthy with what he said. Many people don't pay income tax, and many of those people won't vote for Romney no matter how much he advertises, or sings, or takes Rick Perry's lunch money. As far as these things go Romney's observations were as accurate as Obama's that many cling to their guns and religion -- and less offensive to those maligned. Yet the Romney video appears to be the most important item of the campaign since Romney gave an honest assessment of London's Olympic run-up, itself a non-story. I read once that writers for 'The Simpsons' wrote Homer as if he were a dog -- pinballing with a very short memory from one moment to the next. We can blame the media for having Homer's personality, but they are for-profit ventures and wouldn't serve us with this nonsense if it wasn't what we wanted.

In the end I'm not too concerned with who wins this election -- there is very little between the remaining two candidates as far as most our futures are concerned. Both are centrist technocrats, with no particular ability to push through an extreme agenda if they had one (which they don't), and the U.S. will be largely the same four years from now regardless of who is elected. But the fact that our campaigns are conducted as they are -- well, the world must watch and wonder how this can be in the most advanced country in the world.