The sharpest critics seem to rise above the world without allegiance to party or politics. We connect most strongly with these intelligent interlopers because they work for all of us - they inhabit powerful places as our personal agents. This doesn't mean casting aside partisanship in every argument, but it does mean looking at problems with a clear and independent perspective.
The American Pundit contest showed that many bright, focused and committed people have engaged like never before in the public debate. No longer forced to submit a letter-to-the-editor and hope for publication, almost everyone with a computer now has the opportunity to move the public in profound ways. The winners and honorable mentions in this contest did a solid job of making their cases in a clear, thoughtful manner.
And now some curmudgeonly notes. Many of the pundits in this contest suffered from a laziness that must come from a frenetic desire to churn out copy. That's understandable in this age of hits and clicks.
The winners generally avoided cliches, but several writers repeatedly used limp language that ended up ruining an otherwise good argument. One writer informed us that the Romney campaign was "sinking like a rock," which was the point where I stopped reading. A great writer knows how to twist a cliche into something more meaningful, or avoid them altogether. Others used quote marks as ironic signifiers when they needed none. It's not enough to put "reform" in quotes to convey your displeasure at some failed public policy. It just comes off as "snide" and "juvenile." Other writers seemed to quote at length from news stories or from historical figures, when one or two sharp lines would have sufficed. It just looked like padding.
I would encourage those who rely too much on rehashing whatever the Daily Kos or the Drudge Report found interesting that day to seek out their own stories. Report, research, dig deeper. Surprise your reader with something new. Then get angry. I would encourage some of the wonkiest writers to sharpen your attacks and find your own outrage based on the interesting facts you've found. For those in this contest with the most pointed attacks and the most outraged voices, I would encourage moderation and a greater sense of detachment. Prove your case without falling over the edge of reason. The Romney campaign may have had financial and political links to a voting machine company in Ohio, but that doesn't raise questions "about whether his election could ever be called genuinely legitimate." Sometimes the most devastating attacks are the most subtle. Use your stiletto instead of your chainsaw.
Grand Prize: Maryann Tobin
Runner Up: Rob Lafferty
Honorable Mention: Herbert Dyer Jr.
Robert Salladay is the Managing Editor of the Center for Investigative Reporting.