An important intangible in the presidency is what George H.W. Bush once breezily dismissed as the "vision thing."
That is the sort of attitude that presidents who lack such a vision — and their supporters — tend to have about it. They treat it as if it isn't important, as if competence alone is all that is necessary.
(But the voters don't see it that way. Competence is kind of a relative thing, don't you think? What strikes one person as competent may well strike another as incompetent.)
I have heard defenders of Barack Obama saying much the same thing. Vision — and leadership — aren't so important, they will say. Ah, but they are important. Ask the first President Bush how important he now thinks those qualities are. Or ask President Carter.
Or ask Barack Obama in about 13 months (although my sense is that, if Obama loses — as I expect — he and his supporters will blame it on everything but his performance in office).
Based on what I have seen so far, I expect the 2012 presidential campaign to be about the weaknesses of the other side, not the strengths or achievements of a particular candidate or his vision for the future.
It will be like most of the presidential campaigns in my lifetime — voters will be easily distracted from truly pressing issues by irrelevant ones, and once again America will be deprived of the frank discussion it so desperately needs as its people decide who should lead them for the next four years.
For most voters, the choice will be which candidate to vote against, not which candidate to vote for. Not terribly inspiring.
Someone will win the election because somebody must, but the voters will be no more united than they have been after most presidential elections in my life and the direction will be no clearer.
It isn't always that way, though. Fifteen years ago tomorrow night, when President Clinton and Bob Dole squared off in Hartford, Conn., in the first of their two debates, the president opened his remarks by pledging "to make this campaign and this debate one of ideas, not insults."
And the debate began with a question that went to the heart of the candidates' visions for the nation — what they saw as the role of the federal government.
It was a question that was designed to explore the candidates' ideas in depth, and it succeeded.
"[T]he federal government should give people the tools and try to establish the conditions in which they can make the most of their own lives," Clinton said. "That, to me, is the key."
"I trust the people," Dole said. "The president trusts the government. ... Where possible, I want to give power back to the states and back to the people."
It was the start of a mature and rational discussion about issues that were important. It wasn't resolved on that night — or in the election the next month. In fact, Americans debate it still. But the discussion of the role of government was a welcome change from what had come before and the kind of thing we haven't seen since.
Those were the days.