Four years ago, Sarah Palin had the sassy sound bites and the kind of family melodrama that attracts rubberneckers.
Barack Obama had the emotionally appealing message of hope and change.
This year, Obama carries the baggage of actually having had to govern for a term.
Mitt Romney butchers a patriotic song and runs away from whatever good he did as Massachusetts governor.
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The president's opponents bludgeon him with the fiction that he's a raging radical who's gotten absolutely nothing right. He skewers Romney with innuendos about his previous life in the business world.
Can you see why I'm still fixated on Bill Bradley, the nominee who might have been?
Bradley left the Senate in 1997 after 18 years representing New Jersey. Despite his broad experience and deep intellect, he couldn't persuade the Democratic Party in 2000 that he was the better man to put up against George W. Bush for president.
But Bradley keeps making speeches, interviewing inspiring Americans on a weekly satellite radio show and writing books with his prescriptions for fixing the country's politics and government.
If only the presidential candidates were talking loudly about the sorts of ideas and proposals Bradley outlines in his latest effort, We Can All Do Better.
The 161-page book, which came out in May, is a bit too breezy at some points. And when the former Olympic gold medalist and New York Knicks star analogizes that "America is like a championship team that has hit a slump," you just have to groan.
But Bradley also discusses things that matter.
He expresses the frustration of millions of Americans when he calls for candor, compromise and a sense of urgency about solving the nation's problems. He's seen firsthand the need to break the stranglehold of money and the "Washington insiders' club." And he understands our hunger for courageous leaders focused on the public good, not on narrow ideological agendas.
Bradley embraces "liberal" ideas such as single-payer healthcare, an increased gasoline tax and a useful role for government in our lives, but it's clear they're well-considered elements of proposed solutions that ought to resonate across party lines
For instance, he wants government to help U.S. businesses thrive because they can help raise living standards by hiring people.
"A company's chief social obligation should be to create jobs; providing for people's healthcare and education ought to be government's responsibility," Bradley says.
A "Medicare-for-all" type of program would allow companies to pay higher wages, bring down administrative costs in the system and help control healthcare spending, he argues.
He also advocates taxing things rather than labor.
"If we want more jobs, we should cut the taxes on job creation," he says. "You do that not by cutting the top income tax rate on the 'wealthy job creators' but by eliminating the taxes directly related to employment, which affect all companies and all workers."
He advocates a massive government investment in infrastructure improvement but also says every federal dollar spent on job creation should be linked to a specific job so taxpayers can see where their money is going.
These are smart though not novel notions. But serious thinking about ways forward doesn't dominate the presidential campaign conversation; who's raising more money or telling bigger whoppers does.
Bradley notes that Esquire in 2010 gave him and three other former senators -- Democrat Gary Hart and Republicans Jack Danforth and Bob Packwood -- three days to balance the federal budget by 2020. (bit.ly/bq96qb)
Their solution: Make large defense cuts to reflect current security needs; increase the gas tax by $1 over seven years; reduce most farm subsidies; and raise the Social Security retirement age to 70 by 2057. The top income tax rate stayed at 35 percent, with itemized deductions limited.
Our trouble is that Republicans just want Obama to fail. Both parties would rather play brinkmanship than act in our best interest.
Recurring Bradley themes are the necessity for political leaders to tell the truth about tough choices but also the basic American belief in a just society and our willingness to engage in shared sacrifice for shared prosperity.
He's absolutely right that to get better from our leaders, we have to vote like we mean it: "Democracy," he says "is not a vicarious experience."
Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.