The most candid message of the US election season came from Ron Johnson, the Republican Senate candidate in Wisconsin, who reminded voters that he had no idea where Washington DC was – unlike his opponent, the three-term senator Russ Feingold.

“Russ Feingold is a career politician who knows exactly where to find our national capital on a map,” said Mr Johnson.

“Me? I don’t have the slightest idea.

“If somebody asked me right now where Washington DC is, I would say north but that’s really just a shot in the dark. I am literally clueless.”

OK. The letter was in fact a spoof in The Onion, America’s august journal of political satire. But it really ought to have been true.

Up and down the US, whether Republican or Democrat, America’s midterm candidates have been practising a time-honoured fraud on the electorate.

In spite of spending their waking lives, and probably most of their subconscious existence, plotting a berth on Capitol Hill they are busy pretending the opposite.

The conceit goes back to the nation’s founding and is best expressed in the 1930s film Mr Smith Goes to Washington, which celebrates the naive amateurism of a small-town American in a city of professional sharks.

In 2010, more than most election years, everybody is pretending to be Mr Smith.

In no other profession would Americans rank inexperience higher than experience. And in no other pitch would the advertising so badly distort the underlying product.

Such is the combination of America’s deep-rooted political folklore with a year in which incumbents of any kind are even more toxic than usual.

One additional casualty in the past 10 weeks, however, has been the prospect of any serious debate about America’s future – a year when the country particularly needed to evaluate its narrowing options.

The US Federal Reserve will on Wednesday take the unprecedented step of announcing that it will pump some $500bn worth of new money into the economy by buying up publicly-held securities.

It will mark the next stage of the Japanisation of the US economy – the latest move by the Fed to stave off Japan-style deflation.

Whether quantitative easing works will be central to America’s economic future. No mention has been made of it on the campaign trail.

Nor has anybody thought it worth raising Barack Obama’s deficit commission, which is due to report on December 1. The question of how the US should tackle its mounting national debt has been relegated to a bunch of Punch and Judy bumper stickers that bear as little relation to its fiscal reality as astrology does to astronomy.

The same applies to infrastructure, education, immigration – pretty much anything that touches on America’s future competitiveness: “Literally clueless,” stands as an apt summary on the hustings.

Then there is the matter of whether Americans should be fighting and dying in the “graveyard of empires”.

A month from now, General David Petraeus will issue his report on Mr Obama’s surge in Afghanistan – a critical milestone in a war that America could well be losing.

Again, the debate over AfPak has been notable by its absence. If your candidate pretends he has never been to Washington, there is little chance he will betray a grasp of central Asia.

Doubtless Mr Obama on Thursday will be accused of fleeing the scene when he boards Air Force One for India, a critically important rising giant. Among the topics he will cover with Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, will be how to manage an even more rapidly rising China and what do to about Afghanistan.

The president will later travel to South Korea for a G20 summit focused on reviving and rebalancing the world economy. It is a safe bet that Mr Obama will be dogged by questions on the midterm elections wherever he goes.

There was a moment two years ago when Mr Obama promised to revive American democracy as a model for others around the world – the kind of place that can send a man to the moon.

Right now, however, it is not even a model to itself. Mr Obama must be looking forward to the distractions awaiting him in Asia.

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