So far, the McCain campaign rests on three props: his experiences in the Vietnam war, vows to throw the bums out of Washington (even though the Republicans have run the place since 2000), and Sarah Palin's howling attacks on the Democrats as a bunch of condescending elitists. There are few solutions to real problems in all of this, but there is symbolic politics with a vengeance.
The promises to clean up Washington are nothing more than old Republican rants against "big government," cynically deployed by a nominee who is as much a Washington insider as anyone on Capitol Hill.
McCain's Vietnam narrative is a testament to his courage. It also makes Democrats nervous because it reminds them of the oft-repeated canard that they lost the Vietnam War for the United States. Moreover, it bucks up McCain's military credentials while shielding him against questions about the flaws in his thinking on Iraq and the war against terrorism.
And Palin's attacks on liberals and the press are Nixon-era charges dressed up for the 21st century.
When it comes to the enormous problems that face our country, Obama has vastly better solutions than McCain. But the Democrats can't confine themselves to policy points alone, as important as they are.
To beat McCain and Palin, Obama and Biden also have to find the right sensations and symbols. The winning formula for Obama in this race is the right combination of heart and head.