A Campaign Without Heart

Obama and Romney's town-hall debate was about politics but not the people

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IllustratIon by OlIver Munday for TIME / Romney, Obama, Audience—Getty Images

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The experts will say that Romney's Libya debacle came during the least watched portion of the debate, the last half hour, but it will be replayed in perpetuity. And the President also had strong moments in the first half hour: He took apart Romney's tax-cut proposal, which is a masterpiece of supply-side flummery. He reminded voters of the extreme positions on women's issues and immigration that Romney took in order to win the Republican nomination. His low-key power contrasted well with Romney's occasionally stiff intensity.

MORE: The Lohan Effect – Will Romney Get a Boost from Low-Information Voters?

Romney's best moments also reflected the strongest aspects of his candidacy. He returned to the economic argument he made at the very beginning of the campaign--before he was lured into the Tea Party fever swamp--that the President had been ineffective in pulling the country out of the Great Recession. Twice, he launched into powerful litanies of Obama's failures: persistent unemployment, slow economic growth, no long-term deficit-reduction plan, an increase in government regulation. These assaults were abetted by Obama's continuing failure to talk about what he would do during the next four years. Indeed, the President actually said at one point that he needed a second term to continue the things he had started in the first term. Which raised the question, What if you're a voter who has had a lousy time the past four years?

And that is where the bloodlessness of this race, and these two candidates, is most jarring. This is a nation that has been rocked by recent events. It is begging for a plausible vision of the future. But this has been neither a big nor a truly national campaign. The vast majority of people in the vast majority of states are irrelevant to the process. The campaigns brag about their ability to microtarget voters. That is precisely what we've gotten: a whole lot of micro at a time when macro is sorely needed.

TO READ JOE'S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

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