The presidential debate this week was much ado about nothing, and Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama because he was more energetic in distorting the significance of their miniscule differences. What generally has been celebrated by the mainstream media as a wonky debate over substantive disagreements on the economy and medical reform — “a fundamental choice about the future of America,” Peter Baker trumpeted in The New York Times — was nothing of the sort.

It is absurd to depict this rhetorical stew of superficial nitpicking by two candidates with a proven record of subservience to the Wall Street bandits responsible for wrecking our economy as a meaningful exercise in democratic governance. Both would rather talk about anything but Wall Street’s financing and control of both parties and chose instead to dwell on their nonexistent differences over health care reform.

The president gleefully concedes that Obamacare is a carbon copy of the original Romneycare plan in place in Massachusetts, a plan that Obama took to the national level but was similarly designed as an alternative to a single-payer system. Both extend rather than diminish the reach of for-profit insurance companies. Neither plan confronts the cost control issues at the heart of the health crisis.

On the far larger threat to our economic well-being posed by endemic Wall Street greed, both candidates are clearly wedded to the bailout strategy that saved those responsible for the economic meltdown while ignoring the victims among the tens of millions unemployed and foreclosed. Instead of confronting that topic, they were reduced to brief and meaningless quibbling about the Dodd-Frank law that as Romney correctly pointed out leaves the concentrated power of the five largest banks intact.

Rare was the commentator who grasped, as did David Weidner in The Wall Street Journal, that the six minutes of the debate devoted to Wall Street regulation was bizarrely disproportionate to the crucial role of the financial industry in first creating and then managing the government’s response to the crisis:

“If you think six minutes out of the planned 90-minute debate is appropriate, then consider this: Since the last presidential election, we’ve endured the worst stock market, housing and economic crash since the Great Depression. And Wall Street was in the middle of it all.”

Both Obama and Romney favor the Fed and Treasury policy of rewarding Wall Street with free money while ignoring the plight of homeowners, whose underwater mortgages are at the heart of the crisis. Neither candidate, nor terminally hapless moderator Jim Lehrer, even referenced the $40 billion a month that the Fed continues to waste as part of its $2 trillion purchase of the toxic mortgage-based securities that the banks fraudulently marketed. Nor did they mention interest-free trillions made available to the banks that continue their ruthless foreclosure of underwater homeowners whom they refuse to qualify for mortgage adjustments.

Jousting about the tepid reforms of Dodd-Frank does nothing to restore the sensible regulation of the financial industry that had stabilized the economy for seven decades, regulations instituted by FDR in response to the Great Depression to prevent another one and that were gutted by Democratic President Bill Clinton following the leadership of congressional Republicans.

Romney was Reaganesque in blithely ignoring the consequences of Republican free-market gospel, as the Gipper did in the face of the savings and loan scandal. But Obama did not challenge that legacy and instead offered a vision of government activism that Reagan could have accepted.

Let me admit that I am a sucker for the lesser-evil argument in presidential elections, and my first reaction to the debate was to regret that Obama had performed so poorly. But then I reminded myself about how morally compromised he is on economic issues. In the debate, he even equated the responsibility of unfortunate purchasers of fraudulent loans with the crimes of Wall Street swindlers. The choice between the two candidates, particularly now that Romney is campaigning as a Massachusetts liberal, may explain the apathy among Democratic voters.

If you want a compelling-if-unintended reason to loathe the two-party choice, check out the new book “Bull by the Horns” by former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair. Her principled but ultimately futile effort to check the overwhelming power of the Wall Street lobby under both Republican and Democratic administrations indelibly documents the hoax that now passes for our representative democracy.

Bair, a lifelong Republican, first made her mark as an effective Senate staffer for Bob Dole and was George W. Bush’s choice to head the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. She was reappointed by Obama to continue leading the agency created to ensure that banks serve the public interest. Her book is a confessional tale of her inability to do that because of the financial conglomerates’ awesome power over both administrations.

As a key, if outgunned, participant in the meetings with Treasury and Fed officials, who kowtowed to the demands of the banking lobby, Bair documents the bipartisan culpability in betraying the common but false rhetoric of concern for the ripped-off middle class. Read her detailed description of how Timothy Geithner, then head of the powerful New York Fed, acted in lockstep with Hank Paulson, the former Goldman Sachs CEO whom Bush appointed Treasury secretary, and tell me why candidate-of-change Obama appointed Geithner to replace Paulson.

Follow Bair’s record of mostly losing skirmishes with Geithner as he consistently rewarded Wall Street while screwing Main Street and ask yourself whether it really matters who won Wednesday’s debate.

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