For all its negativism and nastiness, this fall's campaign has been instructive in one very important way. It has given us a much better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of John Kerry's and George Bush's approaches to the job of being president.
The learning has come from two sources. One is our firsthand observation of the sharply contrasting ways these two men considered and answered questions in their three debates. The other is some first-rate journalism exploring in considerable depth how the candidates have made decisions and how they manage their staffs in their present jobs.
Because he has been president for almost four years, we already knew a lot about Bush. We knew that he is someone who operates from clear, explicit moral and religious principles; relies on his instincts to guide his judgments; persists in a chosen course of action, even when conditions change and serious obstacles arise; and displays to the public an optimistic, engaging personality.
But in the course of the last few months, far more of the hazards of his approach have become apparent: a reluctance to recognize errors or correct them; a tendency to deal with issues in a single dimension; a reluctance to delve deeply into the broader effects of his own policy decisions; a dependence on a small, closed circle of advisers; and an impatience when challenged.
In looking ahead to a possible second term, it is safe to assume that the same strengths and weaknesses would continue, even if his priorities should change from Iraq and tax reduction to Iran and Social Security reform.
We knew much less about Kerry because his work as a senator from Massachusetts for almost two decades had not really merited careful national analysis. The positive qualities he has displayed -- this year and in the past -- are an ability to dig deeply into a subject and master its details, to formulate and articulate reasonable-sounding if untested proposals, and a knack for exploiting political openings while avoiding political threats.
But we also know much more about his liabilities: a tendency to overstudy issues, procrastinate and avoid hard choices; a willingness to be swayed by conflicting advice; an awkwardness in dealing with colleagues and staff; and a frequent impression that decisions are being guided by opportunism rather than firm beliefs.
In an ideal world, a president would combine the best qualities of both men, giving us a chief executive with firm principles, a winning personality, an agile mind, a mastery of policy, superior political skills and a gift of eloquence. That candidate is not in the field this year.
Instead, what we have are two examples of what Charles O. Jones, the presidential scholar who has ties to both the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the Brookings Institution, says are archetypes reflecting their dissimilar histories.
Bush is the classic business-government executive, measuring his day in decisions made and confident as any CEO could hope to be in both his choice of senior associates and his course of action. But as Jones points out, a business executive who misjudges a plant manager or invests in the wrong product can damage a company -- and its stock price -- but not wreck a nation by refusing to see the error of his ways.
Kerry is, in Jones's phrase, a classic backbench senator, a man who has found his rewards in picking out a few issues to explore and in being noted for the way he talks about them. Such senators do not aspire to leadership posts or committee chairmanships, nor are they noted for the bills they pass. For them, government is a largely verbal arena, not one measured by concrete results.
As a rule, Americans have preferred -- and elected -- executives, rather than legislators; governors (or generals), rather than backbench senators. Former California governor Ronald Reagan easily defeated former senator Walter Mondale; Bill Clinton did the same to Bob Dole.
Jones said this has been generally a sound instinct on the part of the voters, because executive decision making is what makes political accountability possible. But it is Bush's reluctance to be held accountable for such large consequences of his policy choices as Iraq's problems and our budget deficits that has made another term questionable.
Viewed in this light, the choice for the country becomes one of confirming an executive with visible and even fundamental shortcomings or entrusting the presidency to a man whose habits of mind and of action are far removed from the challenges of the White House.
No wonder this election is so close.