Now that the conventions are over, it is evident that the battle of John McCain is over (McCain won), and the battle of Barack Obama will determine the outcome of the election.
Now that McCain has definitively, and I suspect irreversibly, separated himself from Bush, he has become an acceptable alternative to Obama for voters seeking change. The question now is whether Obama's extra quotient of change — or the different direction that change will take — is worth the risk of electing him.
Obama was wrong to invest so much in the Bush-McCain linkage. Any candidate can define himself at his convention. And if McCain chose, as he did, to use the gathering to distance himself from Washington and from the Bush administration, there was really nothing that Obama could do to stop him. He should have focused very specifically on McCain himself and taken shots at specific votes and bills that he introduced.
Now, after the massive exposure McCain got at his convention and the demonstrable commitment to change embodied in the selection of Sarah Palin, it is too late.
The Obama campaign doesn't seem to get that it is running against McCain, not Sarah Palin. They spent the entire Republican Convention and the week since attacking the vice presidential candidate. That's like stabbing the capillaries instead of the arteries.
Nobody is going to vote for or against McCain because they want Sarah Palin to be vice president of the United States, or don't. But Palin has served, and will serve, a key purpose in illustrating and demonstrating what kind of a man John McCain is. She stands as a tribute to his desire to bring change, his willingness to cut loose from the past, and his courage in attempting innovation.
No amount of criticism of Palin is going to stop that process. Obama needs to remember who his opponent is.
Now the election will hinge on a referendum on Obama. Is the extra healthcare coverage he would pass worth the huge tax increases he will impose?
Nobody buys his claim that he will only increase taxes on a few rich people and give the rest of us tax cuts. Voters can add, and they realize that his spending plans and tax-cut promises come to a trillion dollars and that his tax increases represent only one-tenth as much. They know that everyone who pays taxes will end up paying more if Obama is elected. The question will be, Is it worth it?
Is his commitment to income redistribution and increasing tax "fairness" worth the risk his tax plans pose for the economy?
Is his plan to pull out of Iraq and his commitment to multilateralism in foreign policy worth the risk of putting someone with virtually no foreign policy experience in charge of our international relations in the middle of a war?
Is his promise to respect the Constitution and ratchet back the intrusions of the Bush homeland security measures worth the extra risk of terror attack?
The answer to these questions will only partially depend on what Obama is proposing and on how sound we think his judgment is. They will also depend on the events that will transpire between now and Election Day.
If Iran moves closer to getting nuclear weapons or Israel attacks Iran to forestall that development, things could change in a hurry. If the current atmosphere of economic uncertainty and impending possible crisis — signaled by the federal takeover of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — deepens, it may make voters less willing to risk the high taxes and big spending that Obama will bring in his wake.
If Russia continues to assert its imperial right to dominate Eastern Europe and restore a Soviet-style satellite empire, voters will wonder if they can take a chance on Obama.
But if things are relatively peaceful and uneventful, voters may bristle at the stagnation and turn to Obama in the hopes of change.
The key point is that this race is now not about Bush or McCain or Clinton or Palin. It's all about Obama.