The White House race that got displaced

Republican Mike Pence (left) and Democrat Tim Kaine face off Tuesday night in the only vice presidential debate.

YOU MAY KNOW the only vice presidential debate of Campaign 2016 is Tuesday night at a place named Longwood University in a place named Farmville, Virginia - population 8,300, hometown of rapper The Lady of Rage. (Did you just think of Hillary Clinton?)

You may even know the names of the vice presidential candidates, and good for you if you do. You're a high-information voter.

And maybe, just maybe, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence (for low-infos: the Veepers) might address some specifics, such as how the next administration pays for stuff candidates promise to do.

One can hope.

Perhaps you've noticed information, inspiration or bold solutions to national problems aren't exactly driving this campaign.

Think of last week's focus: the weight of a Venezuelan beauty queen and whether The Donald snorts cocaine.

Or the prior week: birthers and blood clots. Or what seems to lie ahead: replaying the sexual history of the Clinton White House.

I suppose in a "change election" we shouldn't expect change for the better. But it'd be nice if those seeking to run the country talked to and about its citizens more than they talk to and about each other in games of attack and defend.

"In general, we don't get the discussion we'd ideally like to have," says University of Pittsburgh poli-sci prof Michael MacKenzie, whose research includes democratic theory and public engagement.

"It's partly because the media isn't writing about policy," he says, "because they know readers will read about Trump's insults rather than things people have to spend time thinking about."

Yes. God forbid we'd expect voters to think about anything.

Pew Research Center says just 20 percent of America gets news from print newspapers; the vast majority relies on cable TV and social media, the twin slayers of thoughtful debate and reason.

So a varied media landscape, much of it partisan, helps sustain a substance void.


"The business of 24/7 broadcast media largely substitutes opinion for news as we understand it. And if you're focused on opinion, you're not going to have a robust discussion on who stands for what. You're going to be shy on information and long on opinion."

That's Butch Ward, senior faculty member and former director at the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute, which specializes in continuing education for journalists. (Full disclosure: He's also a former Inquirer managing editor.)

He adds, "We're in a place where media's covering a series of attacks and responses, and a lot of media have not been successful in bringing us back to issues."

What if they did?

Imagine Trump pressed to explain how his campaign cornerstone - his big, beautiful wall - estimated at $25 billion, gets paid for, why he'd build it given declines in unauthorized immigration, or where he'd get money for his $500 billion infrastructure plan while "doing the biggest tax decrease" and eliminating the $19 trillion deficit.

I mean, other than making "phenomenal deals" to "make America great again."

Imagine Hillary pressed on findings of the independent, bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget that say her spending plan adds $200 billion to the national debt (the committee says Trump's adds much more) despite her proposed higher taxes on business and the wealthy or how she'd get such taxes through a likely GOP Congress.

I mean, other making us "stronger together."

Clearly there's substantive reporting on candidate proposals, though too much of it unseen compared to horserace and Fight Club stories. Maybe Kaine and Spence spark issues Tuesday night. Or perhaps they just go unnoticed, surrender to the race's displaced direction.

And if it's surrender? Well, Appomattox is just 30 minutes from Farmville.