The first "Debate Week" of the fall campaign has interrupted the traditional majesty of our democratic presidential selection process, in which accusations and insults have been flung, yet again, with the frequency (if not accuracy) of meatballs at a frat-house food fight.
Now it is our civic duty to pause and reflect. Especially when it comes to the most potentially incendiary international controversy of Campaign 2012: Iran's apparent determination to build a nuclear bomb, Israel's determination to prevent it and Republican Mitt Romney's contention that President Barack Obama has thrown Israel "under the bus" by not sounding militarily tough enough and relying too much on diplomatic channels to halt Iran's nuclear quest.
Here's a One-Question Quiz that will offer us all the reflection we need to spot the differences in the candidates' positions: Q. Which presidential candidate last Friday gave this analysis of Iran's nuclear program: "I do not believe that in the final analysis we will have to use military action. I certainly hope we don't have to. I can't take that option off the table. It must be something which is known by the Iranians as a possible tool to be employed to prevent them from becoming nuclear. But I certainly hope that we can prevent any military action from having to be taken."
A. If you said it sounded like Obama, you were right; it did sound like Obama. After all, Obama has often said that all options are on the table in expressing his determination to see that Iran does not develop a nuclear bomb.
And of course, you understood that this speaker pointedly didn't repeat the military threat of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "red-line" warning that Iran would be attacked militarily if its nuclear program crossed that line.
But while you may have thought the speaker sounded like Obama, the correct answer was Romney.
The Republican presidential nominee made that statement to reporters after he had talked by telephone with Netanyahu on Friday, a day after the Israeli prime minister had stood at the United Nations podium and famously used a magic marker to draw a red line on a cartoonish, Wile E. Coyote-version of a bomb, complete with a lit fuse.
Netanyahu drew his red line up near the top of the bomb, where it said Iran would have 90 percent of what it needed for a nuclear weapon.
But after talking with Netanyahu, Romney pointedly declined to endorse the Israeli leader's red-line timeline. "We did not go into enough, into the kind of detail, that would define precisely where that red line would be," said Romney.
(Pause and reflect: Can you imagine what Team Romney would say if Obama made that statement?) Now listen to what Obama told the U.N. General Assembly last week: "A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained." He warned that Iran "supports terrorist groups abroad" and a nuclear-armed Iran "would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of (Persian) Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy." And he declared, clearly and unmistakably, "that's why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
The only difference to date in what Romney and Obama have said about Iran's nuclear program is the president explained the problem in its global conceptual framework as he made clear to the world the peril that threatens us all.
Come to think of it, not even Netanyahu has endorsed Romney's campaign accusation that Obama has thrown Israel "under the bus." Indeed, it appears that the only folks who've been thrown under anything are the ordinary American voters who were just trying to make sense out of political and geopolitical nonsense. You became the targets of pandering, as Team Romney played politics with nuclear fear.
And that's why you may be feeling like you've been thrown under Team Romney's campaign bandwagon.
They meant no disrespect. It was just their desperate bid to make you think you'd seen a difference that never existed.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.