As expected, the president’s coveted agenda item — the Buffett rule — went down to defeat in the Senate. With nine votes short of cloture (51-45), the measure (which would never have been taken up, let alone passed in the House, and was widely derided as a gimmick) died.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) missed the vote but said he would have voted against cloture. In a statement he explained:

I am not opposed to the Buffett Rule because I am opposed to raising income taxes on the wealthiest Americans. I am opposed to the Buffett Rule because it would double to 30 percent the capital gains tax on one group of investors and therefore reduce exactly the kind of capital investments we need to get our economy growing again and create jobs. To protect America from being drowned in public debt we will eventually have to raise revenues, hopefully through broad tax reform, and, of course, we will also have to cut expenditures, particularly the rate of increased spending on so-called entitlement programs. But that is different from the question of how to tax gains on capital investments. I have long believed in the value of having a lower tax on capital gains than on regular income because capital investments are one of the engines that has driven this great economy of ours, made us the land of opportunity, and created the American middle class. Someone once said that if you take the “capital” out of capitalism, all you have left is an “ism.” There is a lot of truth in that play on words.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) also voted against cloture. He was more terse: “There is no disputing that the wealthy should pay their fair share in taxes. This inequity should be fixed as part of broad tax reform, not as a political ploy meant to score points. A serious, bipartisan effort to reform the tax code could pass Congress and be signed into law, ensuring that employees no longer write larger checks to Uncle Sam than their CEOs.” Ouch.

The entire exercise was a pathetic effort to distract voters from the absence of a serious pushby the White House, not only on taxes, but also on just about everything else, to craft bipartisan solutions to our fiscal and economic woes. Democrats should be embarrassed to defend such cynical irresponsibility.

Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus issue a statement, reading in part: “Instead of focusing on big things to fix our economy, he’s focusing on the small things — cynical political gimmicks that divide the country — exactly the thing he derided when he ran for president in 2008. At a time of record high unemployment, the Buffett Tax won’t create a single job. It doesn’t address our spending problem. And, it won’t help the nearly 13 million who are unemployed or middle class families who are suffering in the Obama economy. It was a political ploy, plain and simple.”

The question remains whether the voters will agree and whether Mitt Romney can frame the election as a choice between cynicism and responsibility and between abdication and leadership. If he can do that — treating voters as adults who deserve better from the president — he should be in good shape.