Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney points to President Barack Obama during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, October 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The initial Obama/Romney debate—the one that reversed the direction of the presidential race and may very well determine its outcome—almost perfectly mirrored the state of American political discourse. Barack Obama barely showed up. He failed to articulate his beliefs or offer any specifics as to why he and his party deserve to lead the country into the future. He let the other side get away with murder, as if the righteousness of his political positions would somehow enable them to sell themselves.

Mitt Romney lied about his distant past, lied about his recent past, and then lied some more about his party’s present and likely future in the God-forbid situation that he becomes America’s next president. The “ref”—in this case, PBS’s Jim Lehrer—bumbled through the debate as if lobotomized, literally “acting” in the role of moderator without embracing any of its substance: he failed to flag obvious untruths and deliberate misstatements, keeping his questions safely on the right-wing turf that dominates discussion. Meanwhile, the mainstream media treated the event entirely as a piece of theater, cheering endlessly over Romney’s alleged “energy level” and ability to articulate a new set of policies, while simultaneously ignoring both the lies he needed to tell to achieve this and the ideology and interests of the party he pretended to repudiate.

To the degree that these debates are supposed to help voters make an informed decision about which candidate to support by giving them an accurate impression of how said candidate can be expected to perform in the office of the presidency, they are a cruel joke.

Among the lies and misleading statements Romney was able to get away with in just this one debate were the following:

§ His claim to have engaged in bipartisan cooperation with the Democrats as Massachusetts governor when, in fact, rancor prevailed.

§ His statement taking undeserved credit for educational achievements in the state as governor.

§ His failure once again to identify the alleged tax loopholes he plans to close (a politically impossible task, by the way, identified or not) to pay for his tax giveaway to the wealthiest Americans and his wasteful military spending increases.

§ His lie about requiring insurance companies to cover patients with pre-existing conditions—which his campaign later admitted was false—as well as his lie about having a healthcare plan at all. (His is 396 words.)

§ His lie about Obamacare’s alleged $716 billion reduction in Medicare spending.

§ His lie asserting that “half” of the green firms the Obama administration has invested in “have gone out of business.” (Barely any have.)

These were not the only opportunities for deception Romney had during the debate; he was no less fortunate in the questions he was never asked. Where was the GOP’s denial of man-made climate change in this debate? Where were its naked attempts to disenfranchise the poor, students and minorities? What of its ambitions to control women’s reproductive and contraceptive choices? Where was its reliance on funding from billionaires to run dishonest Super PAC advertisements? Where was the questioning for Romney regarding his dopey declaration that Russia is, “without question, our No. 1 geopolitical foe”? And what of his announcement that Arizona’s draconian (and unconstitutional) immigration laws represent a “model” for the nation?

The vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan was better in significant respects but similarly flawed. Moderator Martha Raddatz did not perform, like Lehrer, as if semiconscious, though she did demonstrate a similarly skewed set of priorities. Regarding foreign policy, she asked question after question about the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi—a Republican talking point—and the problems that the United States faces with Iran and Syria. She didn’t mention China, Russia, the financial crisis in Europe or the threat of global climate change—all of which are likely to loom larger and longer in the coming four years than the issues with which Raddatz seemed obsessed. On domestic policy, she once again focused her agenda on the areas favored by the Romney/Ryan campaign for attack. Indeed, she demanded that the candidates respond to yet another Tea Party–inspired falsehood when she asserted that “both Medicare and Social Security are going broke.” She closed with the simultaneously cloying and idiotic query: “If you are elected, what could you both give to this country as a man, as a human being, that no one else could?”

In the case of either debate, the media follow-up focused almost exclusively on its theatrics and the implications for the “horse race.” Newsweek’s Lloyd Grove covered the presidential debate with an expert on body language, who thought Romney’s “hyperactive” head-nodding was “way aggressive, like Benito Mussolini” and hinted at a likely win for Obama. Time’s Mark Halperin graded the VP debate on his own, though on similar grounds, evaluating the candidates exclusively on “performance and success in using the debate to improve their ticket’s standing in the election.” He began, naturally, with “style” and graded Paul Ryan the winner. Substance? Accuracy? Vision? Give me a break. In a media atmosphere such as this, the Democrats might have been better off nominating John Larroquette or Eric McCormack, who recently starred on Broadway in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. Both delivered a more convincing performance than any of the four “real” candidates—and given the manner in which candidates are judged, the performance is all that matters.

In “Why Romney Is Losing the Meme Election,” blogger Ari Melber says the explosion of online mockery over Mitt Romney’s “binder” comment at the debate shows that he has a bigger problem.