Can we focus on the issues for a few months?

If there’s one thing you can say about the nobility, relevance and elegance of the modern political campaign, it’s that you can’t say anything about its nobility, relevance or elegance.

I wish things were different. I think they used to be different, though when Nixon and Kennedy were slapping at each other in 1960, I was probably just too interested in peeking down Regina Bernasconi’s blouse to notice the details. Of the campaign, not the contents of the blouse.

Of the presidential campaigns to which I’ve paid attention, though—call it an even dozen—none has left me feeling as hollow, futile and despairing as early as Version 2008.

I’m still hopeful about the result. You can’t fool all the people all the time, and I dare to half-believe Bushism has pegged the needle on public gullibility.

It’s the process that’s grinding me down. That and the number of people who don’t seem to be able to see the way they’re being jerked around.

Political differences aside, most Americans probably can agree on one thing: Our nation and our world face serious problems. They may not be, as the Chicken Littles and I believe, unprecedented, but they’re serious, and they aren’t going to wait forever for us to get around to them.

Want some examples? If Medicare isn’t a joke, it will be soon enough. Social Security is a step behind. Global warming, regardless of what you hear from climate experts like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, is real, and it’s here. Fifteen percent of our population has no health insurance; they could be wiped out by a broken arm or bout of asthma, to say nothing of a heart attack or car crash. We’re spending $40 billion a year in the war on drugs, and any eighth grader with an interest can score on his lunch hour. Under the Bush administration’s watchful eye, polluting industries have written their own regulations, then, lest they be too strict, made compliance voluntary. There is no good news from the war in Afghanistan, and the most recent good news from the war in Iraq is that after five-plus years, 30,000 dead or wounded and a controversial “surge” that was supposed to settle the issue, things are (wait for it) no worse than they were in 2004.

And what are the hotly debated issues in the presidential campaign?

Flag pins. Whether a fist bump, a gesture displayed in every sporting event from Little League to the NFL for the last five years, is a “terrorist handshake.” Whether Michelle Obama’s comment that she’s proud of her country now means she was ashamed of it before (if she wasn’t, I was). Which of the candidates is more patriotic, which is the more devout Christian (or could it be that one is, shudder, not Christian at all)? And, of course, whether the black guy from Chicago is more of an “elitist,” whatever that means, than the white millionaire son and grandson of admirals, product of one of the most structured, privileged and status-conscious societies remaining in this country.

I’d like to blame the candidates, but I can’t. They’re only doing what’s been proven to work. If we wanted intelligent debate, if we responded to intelligent debate, we’d get it.

We don’t, though: We respond to ludicrous irrelevancies about Barack Obama’s middle name, to vague hints about his “agenda,” to rumors of his wife’s past associations that, even if documented, should swing no weight.

If it’s true that a people get the government they deserve, now’s about the time we ought to be getting worried.