This campaign year is shaping up as the battle of eye-popping political gaffes. 2008 had its share of missteps, but 2012's "gotcha" moments matter far more, because this race is closer and its combatants quite different.
One of them is an incumbent, of course, but Barack Obama long ago lost his transformational glow. This isn't a race between the grumpy, plainspoken vet and the shiny, new Internationalist Man of Tomorrow; it's between two wily pols, both of whom have stood on every side of many issues.
Last time around, Republican John McCain made his share of mistakes -- confusing "Somalia" with "Sudan," e.g. -- but critics accused him of being too old and forgetful, not too mean-spirited or ignorant, for the presidency.
Mr. Obama made several astonishing statements -- "bitter" rural voters "cling to guns or religion," "I've now been in 57 states: one left to go," etc. -- but a worshipful mass media ignored these.
Our opinion of media fairness is even lower now than in 2008, with independent voters' level of trust declining most markedly, according to a new Gallup poll.
If 60 percent of us don't trust the nation's reporters and editors to be accurate and unbiased, then we should do their work for them. We the people can take the candidates at their inelegant word and decide for ourselves what these supposedly revealing moments portend. If Mitt Romney and Mr. Obama really mean what they said, what would the policy consequences be?
Mr. Obama's most-discussed rhetorical blunders this year are his June news conference statement that "the private sector is doing fine" and July's "you didn't build that" reproach. Last week brought a 1998 audio recording of Mr. Obama voicing his support of income "redistribution" to provide everyone with a fair chance at success.
Are these attitudes news?
For free-market independents and conservatives, the president's remarks simply confirm what they already knew: That a community organizer turned academic turned politician has little understanding of or respect for the struggle and personal initiative required to build a profitable business that provides jobs, goods and services. That he thinks income redistribution is a necessary and perhaps deciding factor in giving every citizen an equal chance at the American dream.
For left-leaning voters, these remarks confirm that the president values the nature of collective undertakings -- whether it's government providing the roads and bridges that business owners use or the schools in which they are educated. And that he thinks government can and should ameliorate life's material inequities.
How do these views shape his policies? President Obama has already spearheaded unprecedented spending on public-works projects, "shovel-ready" or not. Did these help the first time around? Will he ask for more of the same?
How will he pay for it? Will the U.S. incur even more debt? Is this what's best for an ailing economy?
While President Obama's cool and confident personality is by now well-known, Mr. Romney is on display for most voters for the first time; so his blunders are as much about his character as about his political philosophy.
Those blunders include offering a GOP opponent a $10,000 bet, mentioning that his wife drives "a couple of Cadillacs," and questioning the Brits' readiness to host the Olympics.
Last week's big headline, however, was his speech at a May fundraiser at which he said: "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what ... who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims ... So our message of low taxes doesn't connect."
Democrats and left-leaning independents will hear a man so rich that he can't remember or imagine the struggles of most people's everyday lives, who seems to disdain them and will pursue policies that disregard those struggles.
Free-market types will hear a candidate assessing his campaign strategy, not his would-be governing responsibilities (as Mr. Obama spun it with David Letterman), a man who will bring tough-minded business sense to a nation desperate for growth.
How would Mr. Romney's social disconnect shape his policies? Will he rein in entitlement spending and "stimulus" bills out of prudence or meanness? Will that stimulate jobs growth? Cause short-term pain? Loosen up private sector investment? Improve the U.S. credit rating?
Will his awkwardness or insensitivity make his policies less successful? For me, he is no more insensitive than the current president, with his bowling-like-a-Special-Olympian quip, his "punish our enemies" advice to Hispanic voters, his "you're likeable enough, Hillary" scorn.
But that brings us full circle to media penchant for assigning parts in our national drama and sticking to their casting, regardless of contrary facts. The informed voter must work around them.
Ruth Ann Dailey: firstname.lastname@example.org.