But here is my problem. All elections should be about one thing: the extent of government power. After all, the power of government is what a presidential candidate seeks. And all elections, until such time as a cultural consensus is reached one way or the other, should have at least one major candidate arguing in defense of civil society against too much state power and one major candidate making the opposite argument. Whether they end up doing what they promise is a different matter.

The first debate confirmed that neither of the two major candidates has a profound belief in what the government's role should be. Obama has a big-government penchant, but he is too modern a politician to profess it without reserve. And there is something else holding him back. He embodies the American dream: His own life experience belies his big-government intellectual formation and the politics of resentment that some of his followers would like to see him adopt. All of which makes for the pragmatist he describes himself as being and deprives us of a visionary who dares to argue consistently for bigger government in this election.

McCain missed a golden opportunity to make good on his self-professed free-enterprise convictions by failing to oppose the bailout of the financial system and rising up against Wall Street's crony capitalism in the name of the taxpayers (even some neoconservatives, such as Bill Kristol, suggested he do just that). There are many alternatives to the Treasury's outright purchase of the Wall Street's mortgage-backed securities. A free-enterprise candidate should have opposed what would amount to the greatest enhancement of government power since the New Deal and explained why.

Many factors -- among them the collapse of the Soviet empire, globalization and mass migration -- have ingrained in people's minds the notion that having a big idea is tantamount to ideological intolerance, even fanaticism. The result is the triumph of form over substance.

But when the dust settles, where is the big idea?

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is the editor of "Lessons from the Poor" and the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute.

By Alvaro Vargas Llosa