The campaign is a blur of flying pieces of junk, lipstick and gutter-style attacks. John McCain's deceptions about Barack Obama's views and Sarah Palin's flip-flopping suggest an unedifying scuffle over a city council seat.
But Obama bears responsibility, too: His task is to remind Americans that the stakes in this election are far higher than the matter of who said what and when about Palin. He isn't doing it.
Yes, Democrats are a gloomy lot, inclined to see catastrophe around every corner and the other side as tougher, meaner and more manipulative. Imbibing this potion of false pride about Democratic virtue mixed with paranoia about the Republicans' dark genius only leads to defeat followed by glorious disillusionment.
This moment eerily resembles the situation in 1988 when George H.W. Bush used his convention to define the campaign and never again ceded the agenda to Democrat Michael Dukakis.
In short, few Americans know what (or whom) Obama is fighting for, because he isn't really telling them. And few know that McCain's economic plan is worse than President Bush's. As Jonathan Cohn points out in The New Republic, McCain would add $8.5 trillion in new debt over the next ten years. It's McCain who should be on the defensive.
One test in the coming weeks will be whether Obama continues to contest North Carolina.
Rep. David Price, a Democrat who represents the Chapel Hill area, argues that Obama has "offered economic proposals with a lot of promise ... but there has not been the direct personal connection that there needs to be." Obama "needs people to feel angry, he needs to get people to feel something is at stake."
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.