WASHINGTON--It was a little-noticed episode during Barack Obama's boffo foreign trip, but it was the moment most relevant to the American presidential campaign.
On the final stop of his trip last Saturday, Obama dropped in on British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during the PM's most stressful weekend since he replaced Tony Blair a year ago.
Just two days earlier, Brown's Labor Party had lost a special election in one of its safest seats, a working-class bastion in Glasgow. It was no comfort that the race was close (decided by 365 votes) or that the loss was to the Scottish Nationalists, a regional party, and not to the main Conservative Party opposition. To sense the size of the catastrophe for Brown, think of the Republicans losing an ultra-safe seat in a wealthy Dallas suburb.
Immediately, the British papers were filled with reports about plots among Labor politicians to oust Brown from his job, lest the party's 11-year hold on power slip to the Conservatives. Brown does not have to call an election until 2010, but Labor is petrified.
The plot thickened this week with Thursday's British papers highlighting the refusal of David Miliband, the 43-year-old foreign secretary, to rule out a challenge to Brown, even as he professed a loyalty that was seen as lukewarm.
Obama remained studiously neutral during his British visit, chatting warmly not only with Brown but also with the Conservative Party's 41-year-old leader David Cameron--youth is definitely in this year--who might as well be running on a change-we-can-believe-in platform. Cameron has a huge lead over Brown in the polls.
But Obama did try to buck up Brown, with whom he shares a broadly center-left worldview. "You're always more popular before you're actually in charge of things," Obama told reporters after the meeting. "Once you're responsible then you're going to make some people unhappy. That's just the nature of politics, and these things go in cycles."
The key word here is "cycles," and Obama, like Cameron, is on the right side of the political cycle at a moment of distress all across the wealthy democracies.
But there is a message to John McCain in Cameron's rise: The British Conservatives didn't get this close to power by sticking with their old ideas or confining themselves to assaults on the Labor Party.
Cameron has entirely renovated British conservatism by acknowledging the party's nasty public image, its seeming indifference to the economically deprived, and its aura of stuffy privilege. The new Conservatives are warm, up-to-date, environmentally conscious and socially concerned.
McCain, on the other hand, is running a campaign straight out of the playbook that lost the Conservative Party the last three British elections. The old Conservatives thought that if they just kept attacking Labor, the citizens would see the error of their ways.
It didn't work, and it's hard to imagine the American electorate buying McCain's new advertising effort to undermine Obama by accusing him of being a "celebrity" and comparing him--OMG!--to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. McCain has made matters worse by falsely accusing Obama of wanting to raise taxes on electricity and offering a phony account of why Obama decided not to visit wounded American soldiers in Europe.
By running an attack campaign that is almost a parody of George W. Bush's 2000 and 2004 exertions, McCain is chucking away his greatest opportunity, which is to show that he could reform Republicanism and offer voters an alternative way of breaking with a past they have come to loathe.
Interestingly, Miliband put himself at the center of Britain's torrid political speculation with an op-ed article in The Guardian on Wednesday suggesting that even an incumbent party can turn itself into a party of change if it understands the fix it's in. "To get our message across, we must be more humble about our shortcomings but more compelling about our achievements," he wrote, noting that Labor "won three elections by offering real change, not just in policy but in the way we do politics. We must do so again."
It's true that Labor's record in Britain is more compelling than Bush's. That's why it's sad to see Brown, an intelligent and decent man, in such trouble. But Miliband and Cameron both have the right idea: Voters are in a mood to give the status quo a swift kick. Instead of offering puerile ads trashing Obama, McCain should show how he'd be the change we've been waiting for.
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.