As Barack Obama's spokesman accuses John McCain of "the sleaziest and least honorable campaign in modern presidential campaign history," he is giving Republicans exactly what they want--shifting the focus of the election to personalities and tactics from what should be the main issue.
Ronald Reagan put it succinctly to voters in 1980: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The answer was a resounding no, and he swept a sitting president out of office.
This year the answer to the question, "Are you better off than you were eight years ago?" is so obvious and compelling that some in the Obama campaign seem to be acting on the assumption that it wouldn't be cool to keep harping on it.
They need a wakeup call similar to James Carville's 1992 reminder, "It's the economy, stupid" that saved Bill Clinton's effort against Bush 41 by keeping it on message: "It's not the stupidity, stupid."
It isn't the smear ads against Obama, the coded racial attacks that label him "different," the cynical selection of Sarah Palin, the McCain transition from straight talk to double talk. Those side shows are distractions from the main point that McCain has morphed into another Bush and is getting away with the claim that he represents change.
An ocean away, this seems clearer. The Sunday Telegraph quotes a Democratic Party official: "I really find it offensive when Democrats ask the Republicans not to be nasty to us, which is effectively what Obama keeps doing. They know that's how the game is played."
Of course, the smears and lies have to be addressed and swatted away like flies at a picnic, but that's the part-time work of staff and surrogates. Obama now is spending too much of his own time talking about "them" and what "they" are doing instead of telling voters what he will do to undo what the last eight years have brought them--loss of jobs, homes and health care to a wrong-headed war that has squandered lives and billions of dollars to the point of making most Americans despair about the future.
Obama himself seems to know that. "The McCain-Palin ticket," he said yesterday, "they don't want to debate the Obama-Biden ticket on issues because they are running on eight more years of what we've just seen. And they know it. As a consequence, what they're going to spend the next seven, eight weeks doing is trying to distract you."
He should remind his own staff, too.