THE WEEK STARTED with hope that the presidential campaign would take an overdue turn to substance, and it has — sort of. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise anyone, but the past few days have shown that modern politics can transform any serious issue into a demagogic slugfest.

In fact, as the Medicare debate is demonstrating, it may be that the more serious the issue, and the more central to voters’ concerns, the more it is susceptible to bumper-sticker politics: You’d slash it! No, you’d slash it! The real debate, one that may not be possible in the overheated atmosphere of a presidential campaign, needs to be over how to change the program to produce needed savings and better outcomes.

Meanwhile, the tone of the campaign grows ever nastier. After an inflammatory remark by Vice President Biden, Republican candidate Mitt Romney accused the president of running a “campaign of division and anger and hate.” The Obama campaign shot back by saying Mr. Romney “seemed unhinged.”

Political campaigns are rarely pretty spectacles of high-minded policy debate. Yet several phenomena mark the 2012 campaign as particularly lacking. In most recent campaigns, candidates — especially challengers, who have not had four years in office to translate ideology into action — felt compelled to present reasonably detailed programs across a range of issues. By contrast, Mr. Romney has skated across the surface on a range of issues, offering platitudes in place of programs. How would he approach the violence in Syria, the increasingly evident toll of climate change, the looming fiscal cliff? Rhetoric is abundant, but detail is lacking.

For his part, President Obama has offered only the gauziest outlines of a second-term agenda. Instead, his argument for reelection is focused on the damage he argues Mr. Romney and fellow Republicans would do. This may be enough for Mr. Obama to cobble together the necessary electoral votes, but it hardly lays the groundwork for the difficult choices, particularly on the fiscal front, that will confront the next president — and that Mr. Obama ducked during his current term.

Instead of dealing with issues, the candidates and their surrogates have been mired in arguments that are extraneous, disreputable or both. On this list: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s reckless accusation that Mr. Romney paid no taxes for 10 years. The gut-punching ad by Obama-supporting super PAC Priorities USA that effectively accuses Mr. Romney of complicity in the cancer death of the wife of a steelworker who lost his job when a plant owned by Mr. Romney’s Bain Capital declared bankruptcy. Mr. Romney’s false claim that Mr. Obama wants to coddle welfare recipients.

Can this campaign be saved? Both candidates are serious men. They can’t be proud of the exchanges of the past few weeks — the scurrilous ads, unsourced accusations and demagogic fear-mongering. The American people deserve better.