Much has been made of this country’s political system’s division, the schism between the left and the right in American government today.  Little has been said of one thing both sides have in common.  It is the demand that our election process makes upon our candidates to sell out their ideals, their principles, their integrity and, ultimately, even their souls, in pursuit of elected office. The higher the office, the fiercer the demands.

Worse yet, the candidates’ willingness to do so.

Usually, I am more Pollyanna-esque in my regard of the political process.  Every four years we prepare, as a country, to hand over the key to the office of our commander-in-chief.  If our candidate doesn’t win, we may grumble and complain, but we do not break out machine guns.  It’s a minor, peaceful miracle and it is repeated again and again.  I love that.

Certainly politics has its dark side: whoring one’s self for contributions, back room deals and special interests are just the tip of morass of evils.  However, one of the saddest aspects is watching an individual lose themselves, deconstruct their moral fiber, debase their integrity and all on the twenty-four hour media cycle.  Not only do we, the electorate, allow it, we demand it.  We flip the channel if not entertained, judge candidates on gaffes and soundbites, rather than substantive issues, and allow the media to appeal to the worst in us.  It’s become our own presidential campaign version of The Hunger Games, televised for all to see.

Watching the 2000 presidential race will remain burned in my brain for the rest of my life.  Each week the American people were introduced to a different, new and improved version of Democratic candidate, Al Gore.  There was the every man Gore, the intellectual Gore, the sexy Gore, the athletic Gore, middle-of-the-road Gore… didn’t the man ever think, maybe I should just run as I am, actually as Al Gore?  The real Al Gore was lost in the never-ending imaging and focus groups.  It was a shame, all that rebranding and spin, and for what?  He won the popular vote, but lost the electoral college and, at least for a while, his dignity and purpose.

If 2000 was a shame, then 2008 was quite simply: a tragedy.  It hurt, I mean actual physical pain, to watch John McCain in the final months of his campaign.  This was an admirable man, a war hero, someone who really had crossed party lines and demonstrably bucked Republican leadership.  The term “maverick” actually meant something, at first.  I always admired the Straight Talk Express of 2000, but the name was empty in 2008.  McCain was forced to prove himself as a Republican, becoming more extreme on issues he had formerly been more moderate .  He even spoke against legislation he had crafted.  And then, Sarah Palin as his running mate?  It was painful.

Here we are 2012 and I can’t help shaking my head.  What is Mitt Romney at the end of the day?  He’s a wealthy husband, a father, a Mormon, the former moderate governor of Massachusetts and a one-time executive at Bain Capitol.  Yet on the campaign trail he has had to deny, change or suppress most of that.

Don’t believe me? Check this out.

Romney can’t talk about his wealth; he needs to show he’s “in touch” with the needs of average Americans.  Hence, the hush-hush regarding tax forms.  What if we knew how much money he has, or what he’s done to protect it?  While Governor Romney often references his faith, he has, largely avoided, talking specifically about his Mormonism.  His conservative Christian block of voters has decided that getting rid of Obama is worth having a Mormon as a nominee, but don’t want reminding of the fact.  One of Mitt Romney’s greatest political achievements was being governor of Massachusetts, but he has to be careful how much he brings that experience up.  He was much more moderate on many issues when he held office in a blue state, not to mention the fact that their health care system provided some of the model for the plan President Obama championed and was passed into law.  Lastly, there is his business background, which should be a winning attribute for a candidate running in a race during a slow economy.  Nope, he has to avoid that, too.  All those nasty allegations of companies being broken up and sold in parts, jobs being outsourced over seas and it goes back to those tax returns again.  How much money did he make and how did he get out of paying his share of taxes on it?

Hey,Romney can still talk about his experiences with the Olympics!  Oops, he insulted the British on his trip to London three weeks ago, better leave that out, too.

You might have noticed that I focused on Gore and McCain, both of whom lost their respective races.  Does that mean that I feel George W. Bush and Barack Obama somehow managed to retain more of their integrity?  Not at all, but I do think that in winning these two likely retained more of their sense of self.  Whatever debasing they did of their own moral currency while running their races, they came out of it with egos intact.  I should say, their sense of self was not unchanged.   They lost just as much integrity and committed the same crimes of spin and focus groups to mold and reshape their professed views, but we as voters gave them a new image to cling to, they were winners.  As a society we have different standards for winners and losers.

The point is, we contribute to and feed this system.  Thanks to the twenty-four hour news coverage that resembles Entertainment Tonight more closely than 60 Minutes, voters are impatient, ill-informed and fickle.  If we focused less on image or slogans, and more on specific plans or policies, we might get candidates giving us their real views and backing them up, rather than flip-flopping with the latest poll.

We are a government of, for and by the people.  The voters have their stake in this race and their responsibility.  I would dearly love to see more actual conversation, less name calling.  Imagine an election with an informed electorate, asking candidates real questions, not scripted talking points at “town-hall meeting.”  Picture an America where we access the best in ourselves in our debates, rather than rolling in the proverbial mud.

I know, it’s the Impossible Dream.  I don’t care, go big or go home.

Because, we can do better, all of us.

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