Sometimes it's as if we never got out of high school. We insist on choosing our presidents as if it is a popularity contest.
We did it in 2000, when George W. Bush seemed friendlier than Al Gore, an opinion the Supreme Court decided to settle for us. We did it again in 2004, when John Kerry seemed a tad too haughty and couldn't seem to relate. We did in 1992 when Bill Clinton was the hot new stud in class and George H.W. Bush seemed so yesterday. We did it in 1980 when Jimmy Carter came off as geeky while Ronald Reagan exuded star power.
Now we're wondering if new guy Barack Obama might be too remote. Is the John McCain saga overshadowed by the Sarah Palin show? And whatever happened to Amtrak-riding, balding, foreign-policy-spouting Joe Biden, who was the fifth youngest senator in history and is one of the Senate's least wealthy members? Is this election going to become a referendum on a gun-toting, barb-quipping, creationism-espousing, moose-dressing governor of Alaska?
The economy is tanking. Giant corporations are falling like leaves. The jobless rate is climbing. Homes aren't selling or are in foreclosure. Pensions are a myth. People are choosing between a gallon of milk and a gallon of gas. We're secretly sending forces to Pakistan, which is no dinky little country of 25 million but which has 165 million people (and nukes). We refuse to talk to Iran (which is trying like heck to get nukes). Russia says it doesn't have to pay attention to us any more. Our roads, bridges and water pipes are falling apart. We can't clean up the debris from one hurricane before another storm strikes.
Meanwhile, we're lurching around like chickens with our heads cut off parsing Obama's comment that McCain's promise he'll be a change agent is like putting lipstick on a pig. Could it possibly mean Obama was dissing Palin, who wears lipstick (but seems to be able to take care of herself)?
McCain, in turn, falsely attacks Obama as wanting to give kindergartners a primer in sex ed. (Presidents don't even set educational curricula; states do.)
We have to get real, folks.
This election is going to be another squeaker. Once again, as in 2004, Ohio may decide the winner. Or it might be New Hampshire. It's all about the electoral votes and which man gets to 272. There are believable scenarios whereby either Obama or McCain could win. But it won't be a landslide either way.
So let's not let this election degenerate into another phony culture-war contest. The next president is not going to be able to decide whether the teaching of evolution is banned in classrooms or whether abortion will no longer be an option or whether children pray in schools or whether knowing the Pledge of Allegiance becomes a lost skill or whether the death penalty disappears.
Let's not get distracted by Michelle Obama's fist bumps or Cindy McCain's $300,000 convention wardrobe. Lets not dwell on whose children are cuter or more free-spirited. Let's refuse to let either campaign drag us into the mud of half-truths, lies, innuendo, character assassination and spin.
Why don't we get out of high-school mode and demand that Obama and McCain give us serious answers to our questions about economic policy and how they would each pay for their promises. (No more claptrap about getting rid of waste, fraud and abuse without spelling out what they mean.)
Let's pin Obama down on what withdrawal from Iraq would mean to the Middle East and force McCain to say how we can continue spending $10 billion a month there.
Let's examine the vision that each man has for the future of the country they are very different and whether each is being realistic.And let's all watch those debates, starting Sept. 26, and make up our own minds. Let's go for competence, not just likability.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeattersnationalpress.com.