David Brooks and Gail Collins engaged in at least a pantomime of the “What Kind of Capitalism Should We Have?” debate that I’ve been hoping for.

The New York Times columnists had an online conversation headlined — wait for it — “The Debate We Should Be Having.”

Collins said:

For the last few years the political discussion has been framed by ultra-conservatives who believe that government is, at best, an infrequently necessary evil, and that unfettered capitalism is the core of our freedom and the greatest gift of the founding fathers. … So fine. This election, let’s discuss exactly how unfettered we really want capitalism to be.

That’s a pretty good start.

Brooks replied:

I’d welcome that debate if we could have a discussion over the existing forms of capitalism: Anglo-American capitalism, Continental European Capitalism, Chinese State Capitalism and so on. But somehow I don’t think the campaign is going to turn on one of those 17-page special reports in The Economist.

Well, shucks, then. So much for that.

Moving on, Brooks says that the “part of the Romney campaign I really like is his attack on crony capitalism.” He’d love, too, for Romney to talk more like AEI’s Arthur Brooks in The Road to Freedom, standing up as he does for the moral virtues of capitalism, and the “fatal conceit”-dispelling Hayek: “[T]he world is so complicated no one person can understand it, but capitalism sets up collective mechanisms for people to assign value to things.”

Henry Clay. State Department / Flickr

Curiously, though, Brooks says he pines for the Whig Party of Henry Clay and the young Abraham Lincoln. “The Whig Party represents my views better than any other political party ever has,” he says.

This is interesting — and utterly incompatible. The closest analogue to Henry Clay’s American System is Barack Obama’s Democratic party. (Am I crazy to assume that Obama’s use of the phrase “this unbelievable American system” in his infamous Roanoke, Va., speech last weekend was not an accident?) I’d love to hear from Brooks on how he thinks a contemporary agenda of Clay-Lincoln “internal improvements” would be different from “crony capitalism.”

That thought leaders like Brooks are able to project such contradictory desires onto Romney suggests to me that the candidate is still largely a blank slate. Whether that’s a good thing for him, at this point, I can’t say.