Remember when this presidential race was a referendum on experience? Or celebrity? Or ? Now it seems it's a referendum on this thing called "change."
When almost 75 percent of the country thinks things are on the wrong track, change is a pretty obvious dynamic. Yet the candidates aren't fighting over what their change would look like; instead, they are fighting over the definition of change itself.
Obama would seem to have the easier argument. He's for a change of basically everything President Bush stands for. Yet even after 19 months on the campaign trail and hundreds of millions spent, it's hard to say exactly how his change would manifest itself. To be sure, Obama's been trying to keep the focus on middle-class tax cuts, expanded health care and an end to the war in Iraq. But it's also clear that he hasn't been able to stay on offense. has been trying to force Obama into a debate not about who's the "change" candidate, but who's the "maverick." For if Obama is voting with his fellow Democrats almost 100 percent of the time in the Senate (oh, and don't forget he was designated most liberal by National Journal), is he really a guy who's gonna change anything?
Clever -- and another example of the newly disciplined McCain campaign's daily attempts to keep Obama off-kilter and off message. Even so, when Democrats are seen as better stewards than Republicans on pretty much every issue -- even taxes -- the need for Obama to distance himself from his party label isn't as crucial as it has been for other Democratic candidates.
For McCain, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is his most obvious and salient symbol of change. But what happens when his running mate is no longer the focal point of his campaign? Hard to believe that's possible -- especially when all of the major weekly magazines have her on their covers. At some point, however, the uniqueness will wear off. There are just so many stories that can be written about her hunting prowess or the "Bridge to Nowhere" controversy.
Attempts to keep her in the spotlight, meanwhile, could also backfire. My e-mail inbox has exploded with the back-and-forth between the camps over just what Obama meant when, referring to his opponents as dubious agents of change, he used the well-known phrase, "If you put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig." The McCain camp erupted, accusing Obama of sexism, with former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift noting in a conference call hastily arranged by the campaign that only one candidate in this race wears lipstick.
I'm not interested in getting into a postmodern discussion of feminism -- and most voters aren't, either. But raising the flag of "sexism" every time Palin is criticized puts the camp at risk of failing the credibility test. And that, in turn, would make it harder to take McCain's change message seriously.
McCain can tell a very real and effective story of standing up to his party. Indeed, voters are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that they aren't willing to extend to other GOP candidates. In the latest Diageo/Hotline poll [PDF], 31 percent of those who say they think the country is on the wrong track say they're voting for McCain. In 2004, when far fewer people said the country was on the wrong track (46 percent, compared to 69 percent today), Bush got just 12 percent of those wrong-track voters. Among voters who disapprove of the job Bush is doing -- 65 percent -- one-quarter say they'll vote for McCain, including 16 percent who say they "strongly" disapprove of the job Bush is doing. Four years ago, 20 percent of those voters who disapproved of the job Bush was doing voted for him anyway, and just 2 percent of those who "strongly" disapproved did so.
Just as Obama needs to leave voters with a clear understanding of what his "change" would look like, McCain must give voters more specific examples of how he would go about breaking with the Bush years. Taking his party to task for losing its way, as he did in his acceptance speech last week, was a start. But it was far from confrontational.
The outcome of the "change" argument may come down to who more effectively seizes the terms of the debate. Will it be who's the more authentic maverick? Or who's more of a departure from Bush? If voters can come away with a clear idea by Nov. 4, that would be a change.