Obama, McCain, and the Silence of the Lambs: Everything Has Changed in Election 2008

Obama, McCain face a changed political landscape.

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LOS ANGELES—First principles, Clarice.

It's time to hit the reset button on the presidential race.

Democrats won't like to hear this, now that they've blazed a lead, but in the past four or five weeks, the world has been transformed, and the factors that had us siding with Obama or McCain no longer exist.

As bad as things were—Katrina, Iraq, Fannie Mae—at midsummer, they are really bad now.

As important as the personal narratives seemed in August—black pioneer vs. brave POW—they are now diminished.

And as much fun as it was to hear Keith or Sean sock it to the other side, we no longer can indulge ourselves in partisan tomfoolery.

Charles Keating? Irrelevant. William Ayers? Give me a break.

In four weeks, we'll be choosing no mere man or party. We'll be choosing the way to get our families out of a burning house. We'd better get it right.

This race is not over. Not by a long shot. As Democratic pollster Peter Hart notes in his latest analysis, the Democrats have a history of celebrating touchdowns when they're still on the 10-yard line.

It is time for first principles. Starting tonight, we have two more opportunities to watch the candidates, under pressure, tell us what they propose to do.

Do we want divided government, with an ideological minority fighting to gum things up, or is it better that we give one party, at least for two years, the power and responsibility to actually do something?

Do we want change and action? Or is it time to hunker down and hope this is just a normal downturn in the economic cycle and try to muddle through?

Does one party look eager, fresh, and inspired to lead? Does one party look mean, dispirited, and intellectually exhausted?

What is important in a president today? Knowledge, curiosity, and innovation? Or loyalty to traditional principles?

Should America worry about its standing and engagement in the world? Or is it better to arm ourselves and bully, for as long as we still can, our allies and rivals?

What does it say about him—or her—if a candidate, in a time of national crisis, strives to divide, distract, and dissemble?

Do we care that the national debt is $11.4 trillion and the annual budget deficit is $400 billion; that we're spending $3 billion a week in Iraq and have just OK'd a trillion-dollar bailout of greedy investors—just as Social Security and Medicare costs are going to soar? Will someone tell us where the money is going to come from?

Should we ask the wealthy to pay a bigger share of the tax load as we slowly work our way out of this? Or is it more important that millionaires keep their tax breaks, so that their spending will trickle down to the rest of us?

I am out here in dreamland, far from Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and the stunning collapse of the U.S. financial system is not quite so real.

It's a stock market story, so far. There is a lot of conversation in the coffee bars and workplace about if and when to dump the equities in one's retirement portfolio—and for what.

The local TV folks don't seem to have a problem finding working-class stiffs to interview about the lack of good jobs and good wages, but the news is not yet filled with grim tales of massive layoffs, homelessness, and hunger.

I watched the vice presidential debate in a bar at Union Station the other night and found half the crowd watching Joe and Sarah and the other half screaming with delight as Manny was Manny and the Dodgers beat the Cubs.

Everyone expects Obama to carry California. The presidential race is attracting interest because of his candidacy, but not yet, I sense, as in 1932 or 1980, when Americans heard the wolves at the door.

But maybe Los Angelenos have the right perspective. The sun is out, the sky is blue, and the ocean gleams as I jog along the beach. An East Coast refugee, wondering about the silence of the lambs.