As the caucuses wrap up, and regardless of who wins tonight, the identity of the eventual nominee seems clear. Despite months and months of debating and campaigning, and as the GOP’s base seemed desperate to anoint a new non-Mitt Romney every month, the former Massachusetts governor is clearly the man to beat. He has unmatched organizational assets, the backing of much of the GOP establishment, enormous financial support from Wall Street and an image as a palatable alternative to independent voters that the other GOP contestants lack.

Winning the caucuses would certainly burnish Romney’s front-runner status, but the GOP’s eventual 2008 nominee, Sen. John McCain, finished a distant fourth here.

Perhaps it’s the sense of anti-climax that has stripped the passion and intensity from the run-up to the 2012 caucuses. Among the candidates I saw here, by far the most passionate and fiery has been Ron Paul, whose supporters believe fervently that they are not merely supporting him but participating in a movement to fundamentally change the United States. Other candidates here have spoken in similar terms, but none of their supporters with whom I spoke talked as eagerly and enthusiastically about their man as did Congressman Paul’s.

The candidates still went through their desultory paces, grinding their way through stop after stop, hewing close to their favored talking points and—despite efforts to draw distinctions among themselves—emphasizing the same issues over and over again: Obama’s regulations and high taxes are destroying business. We need to exploit to the maximum degree possible domestic sources of energy. Iran is a serious threat to the United States and the world (Paul was a clear exception in this respect). The Constitution is under assault. What makes America great is the freedom to make it on our own, not to give handouts to people who don’t deserve them.

This is depressing as spectacle, but more to the point, it’s unhealthy for the country. It’s not that we have all the right answers to all the hard questions, if only Democrats could rule. Quite the contrary. The Democratic Party is divided, incoherent and, of course, filled with its own pandering careerists and compromised by its own ties to Wall Street.

On the biggest issues of the day, whether our deteriorating infrastructure, vastly unequal wealth and educational opportunities, shrinking social mobility, American militarism, eroding civil liberties, runaway health care costs and more, what we need are serious substantive debates over viable competing alternatives for confronting pressing problems. What we got here was anything but.

Of course, all campaigns are awash in platitudes, feel-good lines and assurances from the candidates that they are reliable and trustworthy to their base supporters.

This is not unique to Republican politics. But the degree to which Republicans have come to vilify the most basic functions of government—who would have thought that disaster relief would become controversial?—has not only boxed them into an ideological and policy corner. It’s contributed to a denuding of our political discourse and hindered our ability to tackle seriously major problems.

Let’s round back to disaster relief for a moment. There is a valid conversation to have about what kinds of property risks to insure, for example, and what role government should play in that process. In other words, discussing disaster policy is reasonable and necessary. But when the Republicans insisted, in the wake of the Joplin, Mo., tornado earlier this year that killed more than 150 people, that disaster relief funds would have to be offset by spending reductions elsewhere, they weren’t raising trenchant policy concerns. Instead, they were engaging in the same scorched-earth politics that has become their bread and butter.

Likewise, there is a serious debate to have about the trade-offs involved in providing decent health care in a country of 300 million people and counting. But last night when Romney said, as he often does, that on day one of his administration, he’d get rid of Obamacare, modeled in basic respects after his own plan for Massachusetts, he wasn’t raising any significant issues about the costs and benefits of providing universally decent health care in America. Instead, he was appealing to an us vs. them politics in which the “us” are the Americans who, by dint of their own hard work and effort, deserve to live decent, secure lives and the “them” are the grubby free-loaders who always have their hands out.

There is also a vitally important conversation to have about U.S. national security policy in a complex world marked by increasingly diffuse threats, whether from climate change, an issue with which the Pentagon itself has been increasingly concerned; the global arms trade, including in nuclear weapons; terrorism and our own global military posture; predator drone policy; and more. But when Michele Bachmann says that she will protect American cities from being targeted by Iranian nuclear weapons, or Romney accuses President Obama of going on a global “apology tour”I mean, please.

While every candidate mentioned our runaway debt and insisted that this constituted generational theft, only Paul noted that the Pentagon would have to come in for significant cuts. And despite the supposedly world-historic crisis that our debt is said to have made imminent, every candidate insisted that we must cut taxes dramatically. As for programs that would need to be cut, the candidates were notably vague on specifics. Romney, as noted above, said he would cut Obamacare on day one. But according to the Congressional Budget Office, health care reform will save us money over the next 10 years. He also proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, which are peanuts in the grand scheme of the federal budget.

Polls show that, in evaluating prospective candidates for the presidency, Republican voters are far more interested in aspirants’ leadership qualities and their values and visions. No surprise here: All politics are fought crucially at a symbolic, values-based level. Anyone seeking public office will, in addition to articulating specific policy positions on key issues, connect those positions to a larger vision of governance. What I found perhaps most striking in Iowa was the degree to which, in one way or another, the GOP candidates articulated what amounted to a polarized view of the world, based on a political divide anchored in a belief that there are the deserving and the undeserving.

Rick Santorum also attacked President Obama for comments Obama made last year in defense of the social safety net. Santorum was especially aggravated by the president’s statement that we would not be a great country without the support that programs like Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid provide. For Santorum, the affront was that handouts reward those who haven’t earned the security and well-being to which the hard-working are entitled.

In similar terms, Romney said last night, in looking ahead to a general election fight with Obama, that theirs would be a battle of fundamentally opposed visions. On the one side, Romney argued, was a vision of America as the greatest country in the history of the world, predicated on the notion that those who work hard can achieve the American dream and that, due to the wisdom of our founders, “who saw beyond the years,” a system was established that would give every American, regardless of the circumstances into which they were born, had an opportunity to achieve that dream.

This is a bit rich coming from a man who grew up in affluent circumstances and has never known privation.

The opposing vision was what Romney described as “European social democracy.” And what about “European social democracy” presents such a frightening alternative to the American way of life? According to Romney, whereas his vision is of a “merit society where people could succeed by virtue of their accomplishments,” European social democracy is “where the government takes from some to give to others.” When Republican demigod Ronald Reagan wanted to scare Americans with a nightmare alternative, he invoked the specter of the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union, with its deadening repression and long breadlines. Romney, by contrast, appears to be fear-mongering the prospect that we might have shorter work weeks, longer lives and less crime.

More seriously, I am continually struck by the degree to which the GOP has eschewed older professions of concern for the ways in which “government handouts” might be bad for the recipients themselves and that they might, therefore, justify their opposition to welfare programs on the grounds that they are actually concerned about the poor. In the place of those older concernshowever disingenuous they might have beenhas been an increasingly Ayn Randian vision in which government’s job is to ensure that our “heroes” and “job creators,” as Romney said last night, have the opportunity to express their full talents, unfettered by misplaced concerns about the less deserving.

At the events I attended, Gingrich, Bachmann, Santorum and Romney appealed to virtually entirely white crowds populated largely by folks over age 50. Listening to each insist that the antithesis of what makes America great is handouts, of taking money from those who have earned it and redistributing it to those who haven’t, it seems as if a new kind of dog whistle is on display.

The classic version of dog whistle politics was articulated in especially evocative terms by the late Lee Atwater, the legendary no-holds-barred Republican strategist. Explaining how Southern politicians pivoted from more racially explicit appeals when the older appeals were no longer socially acceptable, Atwater said:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N-word, n-word, n-word.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n-word’ —that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

The new dog whistle is more diffuse than this. It’s not as specifically racialized, though antipathy to gays, Muslims and illegal immigrants is certainly commonplace in the contemporary GOP. (And remarks here by Santorum, in response to a question about welfare, that “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money” are a reminder that the racial version of this dog whistle is not dead.)

In this context, it’s worth mentioning that the spate of voter ID laws that the GOP has championed around the country are targeted especially at the poor, the young and the otherwise marginalized and can be seen as applying the deserving vs. undeserving frame to voting rights.

Beyond the predictably shallow and platitude-laden stump speeches on display in Iowa, GOP candidates have crafted their appeals to an aggrieved group of Americanspredominantly white and skewing olderwho believe that they’ve earned the right to decent, respectable lives and that liberals’ shredding of the Constitution and disrespect for the Bible, or both, has opened the flood gates for the undeserving to undermine American greatness and strip “real Americans” of their birthright.