John Podhoretz dedicates his latest Commentary essay to the “lessons to be learned from an election without substance,” by which he means an election bereft of debate about clashing ideas.

The contentlessness of the Romney campaign was a vacuity of the center-right—an effort to reach out to that 53 percent by being as airy as possible. The most telling line in Romney’s largely self-written convention speech was “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans. And to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”

Yes, but how? Only a fanatic would think Barack Obama wouldn’t want to “help you and your family.” Romney’s answer to this was “jobs,” presumably because the word “jobs” tests well in focus groups. But for the American middle class, the woes of the past few years and the worries about the future are more complicated than that.

The vast majority of those in the American middle class haven’t lost their jobs and probably don’t expect to lose them. Their economic concerns revolve around being and feeling poorer than they were and felt in 2007, being or feeling trapped in a house worth less than it was, and being or feeling trapped in a job that pays less than they thought it would by now—and in all these cases, prospects are for extraordinarily modest improvement at best.

To such people Romney had nothing to say; he stuck instead to those generalities about America being a nation of entrepreneurship that celebrates success and rewards hard work and dreaming. That’s all well and good, but many people work hard without dreaming; and it is a violation of the central conservative idea of the dignity of the individual to confuse the idea of “success” in life with purely financial success as a result of risk-taking.

Thus did the flight from content create a fatal problem for Romney. He may have thought his lack of specificity would lend him more appeal, but in the end, it made him less appealing because he offered nothing but words. The exit-poll question he lost most definitively to Obama was about which of them “cares about the problems of people like me.” Obama won it by a staggering 81–17. There was some moaning in conservative circles that this indicated a dreadful decline for America, its final Oprah-ization. That is a terrible misunderstanding. Of course politicians should “care about the problems of people like me.” The “problems of people like me” are the root of all policy. Otherwise being a politician is nothing but regulation and management.

You cannot beat something with nothing. Obama had a record that was less than nothing but a machine and an approach to victory that were more than enough to add up to something. Romney, in the end, had nothing but Obama’s nothing.