Ann McFeatters - Conventions shed inadequate light on candidates

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With the political conventions over (is anybody weeping?), it's on to the debates. Hurrah!

The conventions showed us that Ann Romney and Michelle Obama are two extremely impressive women. We learned that it is not wise to let Clint Eastwood on stage without a script. We learned that having conventions in the South in hurricane season is probably not a good idea. And we found out that Bill Clinton is still a heckuva speaker.

But despite all the hoopla, I personally think we learned very little about how Mitt Romney would govern or exactly what President Barack Obama would do in a second term to juice the economy. And it all comes down to a few swing voters in the middle.

Democrats left Charlotte with a little more wind in their sails (and the best speeches and most enthusiasm overall) while Tampa showed us that the Republicans sort of feel saddled with nominee Mitt Romney. But both parties shored up their bases without winning over those crucial independents.

Obama goes into the last two months before the Nov. 6 election with less money than Romney. Also, Democrats face restrictive new state voting laws that are likely to limit turnout at the polls by minorities, which will hurt Democrats.

The fight to control Congress is just as intense as the presidential race. While Republicans are almost certain to keep control of the House, control of the Senate is much more problematic, coming down to a few tight races such as those in Missouri and Massachusetts.

Obama argues he could have done more to spur the jobs recovery if Democrats had not lost the House to Tea Party activists and if Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had not vowed the top GOP priority was to deny Obama a second term. Former President Clinton insists no president, not even he, could have repaired in four years the economic damage Obama found when he became president.

We hope the debates give us a better picture of exactly what each candidate would do -- after the worst recession since the Great Depression -- to restore the middle class, reform tax codes and get America back to work. (Romney's pledge to create 12 million jobs in a first term is meaningless -- economists expect that to happen no matter who is elected. Besides, there are 23 million unemployed or underemployed Americans.)

Just for the record, here is the debate schedule set by the Commission on Presidential Debates:

-- Oct. 3. Obama and Romney debate domestic policy, at the University of Denver, moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS;

-- Oct. 11. Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky., moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC;

-- Oct. 16. Romney and Obama debate domestic and foreign policy in a town-hall meeting format at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., moderated by Candy Crowley of CNN;

-- Oct. 22. Romney and Obama debate foreign policy at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS.

All debates will be televised live from 9-10:30 p.m. Eastern time. The moderator or the town-hall audience will ask a question, with each candidate permitted two minutes to respond. Seating will be limited, with most tickets given out by lottery.

This was supposed to be the year we had a serious conversation about the role of government. Republicans say government is the problem; Democrats say almost everything in daily life -- from the roads we drive to work on to the water we drink -- is affected by government, mostly to the good. We need to hear this debate play out between Romney and Obama, and we need specifics, not shouting, lies or rhetorical tricks.

In this election, the past may not be prologue. Conventional thinking says that if likeability is paramount, Obama wins. But convention also dictates that if the high unemployment rate is the barometer, Romney wins.

Isn't politics fun?

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.)

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