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Wanted: Ideas That Work

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
If all politics were truly local, Tim Pawlenty might still be in the race. The former governor of Minnesota made the best offer to Iowans, promising to cook their dinner or mow their lawn. Of course, there was a catch. The winner of the dinner and a freshly clipped lawn had to come up with an example of something specific offered by President Obama to solve the economic mess.

It was a trick question because there are no examples. The political rhetoric this season has focused so far on what's not there from this administration. Despite his failure to attract conservative enthusiasm in Iowa, Pawlenty demonstrated both a serious side and a light touch in a time when polarizing trivia make up the substance, such as it is, of the "debates." Most of the rhetoric is little more than a repetitious leveling of ideas.

Pawlenty, in fact, had a lot more to show than Rep. Michele Bachmann, the winner of the Iowa straw poll. After all, he has actually governed a liberal state as a fiscal conservative, and for two terms. He ran behind a congresswoman from his own state, and that's the way it can work in the oddly structured early rounds of the Republican competition.

We're living with multitasking distractions, and the early televised political debates and straw vote are trivialities. You can arrive late and not miss much. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas figured his day-after rodeo-like presentation would get big attention, and he was right.

Iowa is the first test, but the debate offered little that's fresh. We watched, looking for real substance to take into 2012, but wound up with mere personality revelations. Newt Gingrich had a point when he chided moderator Chris Wallace to put away the "gotcha" questions, which is what the media do best.

"I'd love to see the rest of tonight's debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead, instead of playing Mickey Mouse games," he said, and the audience cheered.

They loved it because no one was in a mood to listen to yet another explanation of why certain campaign workers defected from one campaign to another, the inside-baseball popcorn and Cracker Jacks on which reporters feed. Newt is an idea man, for better and worse, and he was trying to present his ideas with a big audience at hand. Chances are he won't have it for long.

Michele Bachmann, for all of her admirable passion, is hardly an original thinker. She wins because she runs on conservative social issues, but no one expects her to lead with a challenging intellect. She's a niche candidate who fares well before the arguments get complicated. She gets attention, but for one-note ideas, which she'll never be required to broaden.

The big question is: What kind of ideas is America ready to listen to and act on?

"Bold ideas are almost passe," writes Neal Gabler in The New York Times. Having written a biography of Walt Disney, he seems a bit jaded in his suggestion that we've been animated, automated and webbed-out into either trivial or greedy thinking, limiting ourselves to ideas that make money but do not make us think.

"We are living in an increasingly post-idea world," he says. "A world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can't instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that few people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating, the Internet notwithstanding."

But that, it seems to me, gets it all wrong. Americans are wary of his kind of bold ideas, and for good reason. He cites Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Marshall McLuhan, among others, as examples of real thinking. Their ideas have been simplified and deified. Marxism led to brutal dictatorships, Freud took away human responsibility for personal behavior, and McLuhan was used to celebrate the medium as the message.

Gabler bemoans the impact of social networks as obstacles to thinking, but he's looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Never have so many people so quickly learned about ideas that directly affect them and their futures. Democracy, after all, is based on action by informed citizens. The Founding Fathers limited the vote to those who owned property, an idea that seemed a good idea at the time, and now those without property or even jobs can make their voices heard. The vote is a great equalizer, and the debates would be, too, if they were focused on specifics.

Is there someone out there who has those ideas? Send him -- or her -- to me, and I'll cook the dinner.

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