10/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Against Change Before Being For It

John McCain has carefully nurtured his reputation over the years as a political maverick. The press has been his eager ally, embracing the story of the war hero willing to stand up for his beliefs to his fellow Republicans.

While Senator McCain may have taken some positions in the past that angered the GOP leadership, he long ago abandoned his independence to advance his ambitions to be president. He has enthusiastically supported George Bush on the issues of greatest importance today and even patently pandered to the far right of the party when necessary to further his ambition.

Having discovered -- as Hillary Clinton did -- that to today's worried Americans the mantra of "experience" loses to the appeal of "change," McCain is trying to use his obsolete maverick laurels to re-cast himself as the "change" candidate. While this marketing effort may seem transparently cynical and preposterous in light of his Bushian positions on foreign policy, energy, health care and the economy, selling McCain the Maverick Change Agent is an easy proposition because of the reputation for independence he established years ago. It also helps when your "marketers" -- the campaign professionals -- do not worry about facts or the truth getting in the way.

This approach emphasizes the personalities of Senator McCain and his wilderness running mate rather than positions on issues. It also involves putting the media on the defensive, to minimize how often they point out that you cannot reconcile support of change with support of the same policies of the past eight years.

Over many decades -- since the Nixon-Agnew attacks on the media -- Republicans have cleverly and effectively limited journalistic scrutiny by alleging liberal bias, thus causing the press to be hesitant in challenging Republican assertions. Indeed, this tactic reached its zenith in the media's meek acceptance of the White House's trumped-up rationale for invading Iraq.

The Obama camp needs to remind voters that the singular core of Senator Obama's mission from the outset was to bring change in policy and attitude to Washington. Having seen how this message has resonated with a population concerned about our current direction, other candidates (even Mitt Romney) picked up the "change" message along the way.

But only Obama was genuine and consistent in addressing Americans' demand for change. He has been articulating the case for a new direction for a year and a half; McCain has been advocating change for a week and a half. McCain was against change before he was for it. And he will be against it again if elected.

Because of the turn in the Republican strategy, and because of the media cacophony of TV, print and Internet, it will be difficult to cut through the clutter with a clear message that undercuts the personality versus policy blur. Especially if a cowed mainstream press refuses to question the tactics of personality and the effort to distract attention from the issues.

Until the debates. The three presidential and one vice presidential debates are likely to command huge audiences. As polls have indicated now for many months, Americans are deeply troubled by our nation's course -- jobs, foreclosures, an unpopular war, growing national debt and deficits, the gap between the very wealthy and everyone else, gas prices, energy independence. We know that this election is momentous. In very large numbers, we will watch these debates.

That is the time for both candidates to make their case, and for the questioners to insist that they talk about addressing the concerns of the people -- and not about lipstick on pigs, or sex ed in kindergarten, or bridges to nowhere. The American people will be watching and deciding. They will not be interested in gaffes and trivialities when there are so many serious issues confronting us.

Presidential debates have always been important, but never as much as this year. The nature of this campaign and of the contestants means that -- perhaps more than ever before -- the debates will determine the outcome. The candidate who, in those debates, can persuasively communicate a commitment to change, and what that new direction will mean for the country, will win in November.