09/09/2008 02:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Spare Change: The Presidential Choice

For all the ink and air time about to be lavished on Sarah Palin, this election won't be about her. She electrified the evangelical base of the Republican Party and gave McCain a much needed boost of energy. But very few voters are going to cast their ballot for or against Sarah Palin. Americans will vote on which presidential candidate seems the most plausible source of change.

Underneath all of his faux populist bluster, McCain's essential argument is that Washington needs better management. The election isn't "about issues," as his campaign manager said, it's about biography. McCain is the lone maverick, willing to take on his party, ready to shake up Washington, and clean up the bureaucracy. Iraq wasn't the wrong war; it was just mismanaged. Our spending priorities aren't distorted; they're just wasteful. Our global economic and national security strategy aren't wrong-headed; they just need greater credibility. The president's national security prerogatives should not be curtailed; they should just be exercised more wisely.

Not surprisingly, his convention speech was virtually devoid of policy - as was his choice of Palin, who brings éclat but so little policy substance that she has to be hidden from the press. The pitbull with lipstick is there to extol McCain and assail Obama to the Republican base.

McCain's policies are pretty well defined - more of the same isn't just a political insult. He'll continue the Bush tax cuts, and add more top end and corporate cuts. He'll continue the Bush trade policies. He'll continue the Bush war in Iraq, while being more bellicose towards Russia and Iran than even the administration. His "drill now" posturing fits Cheney's energy policy, although he also pledges to add support for renewable energy. Conservation - a leading source of jobs and energy savings - doesn't cross his lips. His budget priorities - with more spending on the military and less at home - track those of Bush. And of course, he'll extend Bush's social conservatism, particularly his choice of right-wing activists to the Supreme Court and federal bench. He continues Bush's emphasis on privatization - and the crony capitalism it spawns, and on deregulation -despite the financial debacle it created. He echoes Bush on privatizing Social Security. On health care, he is worse the Bush - actually calling for taxing your health benefits as income - a $2-3000 tax increase for many families - in order to accelerate the unraveling of employer based health care.

What's the change? McCain pledges to manage it better. He'll shake up the bureaucracy. He pledges to freeze domestic spending, eliminate programs that waste money and, of course, veto earmarks (at $20 billion or so, basically a rounding error in the federal budget). Why is a 72 year old man who has spent a quarter century in Washington plausible as an agent of change? Because he is a hero, the lone maverick. With Americans convinced most of their tax dollars are wasted, this argument strikes a chord.

Obama has a compelling biography but his argument is about direction. He's a cautious reformer, but inevitably challenges the Bush priorities. The war in Iraq was wrong and must be ended. We need a national health care plan, with a public alternative to private insurance, and should pay for it by reversing Bush's tax breaks for the wealthy. To generate jobs and growth, we need large scale public investment on energy and infrastructure, on education and training - not more corporate tax breaks. The shadow banking system must be regulated, not just bailed out. The plunder and fraud of privatized warfare in Iraq should be exposed and curtailed. We have to change course on our trade policy. We need to empower workers to organize and lift the minimum wage at home. And as a social liberal, he'll reverse Bush's gag orders on contraception, support choice, and save the Court from becoming a right-wing bastion.

There is an irony in this contrast. As demonstrated by their campaigns, Obama is a far better manager than McCain, who nearly mismanaged his way into defeat in the primaries. And despite his managerial conception of change, McCain strikes a far more populist tone than the cautious Obama. The same temperament that makes McCain a dubious president makes him a good candidate.

With the economy getting worse, job losses growing, housing values sinking, foreclosures rising, the cost of home heating and gas hurting, Afghanistan deteriorating, the coming debates should make this choice clear, but only if Obama sharpens his assault on the failed policies of the past with the same punch that McCain uses to assail a Washington that is broken. Will Americans looking for help go with the gnarled old white warrior that they basically like or the brilliant, African American leader that they barely know? That choice won't be decided by Sarah Palin. It is likely to be determined by whether Obama can succeed in convincing folks he really does represent the change in direction that they are looking for.