WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a way, we all feared it would come to this: A campaign that started out about the issues has disintegrated into a dirty ad war.
It was supposed to be different this time, and for a while it was. During the primaries, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debated the finer points of their health care plans; Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sparred over the best ways to save jobs in Michigan.
Sure, there was the now-infamous 3 a.m. phone call ad about "who's most prepared to be commander in chief," but that was about something that actually counts in an election: experience.
But now what do we have? An election clearly turned upside down because of McCain's pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
No doubt about it, McCain changed the fundamentals of the race by picking Palin -- and also turned his campaign from one centered on his experience into one that's about change.
Who cares if that was Obama's calling card? The McCain folks saw how it worked for Obama no matter how many phone calls Clinton said she was ready to answer in the middle of the night; they decided to steal it as their own. And what better way to turn a 26-year congressional veteran into a change agent than by appointing a true outsider -- and a woman -- with no Washington experience as his political partner?
And so far, at least, it's working. The race is a dead heat.
It was a purely political choice. It had nothing to do with governing or with who would be best able to step up to the job of the presidency should that need arise. It was about finding a woman to appeal to those disaffected Clinton supporters and finding a true social conservative to appeal to the GOP base that has been so unenthusiastic about McCain. Watch Palin's effect on women voters »
Not that Obama's choice of Biden wasn't political, too: Biden is a Catholic with appeal to those working-class voters in battleground states who still can't connect with Obama. And, by the way, he brings foreign policy credibility, too. Watch Biden say McCain "just doesn't get it" »
But Palin was a game-changer, and the McCain folks have clearly decided that was the only way to win.
Sure, McCain says, if Obama had taken him up on his invitation to do town hall meetings across the country, this campaign may have taken a different turn. (And he's right: Obama should have done it.) But he didn't, so now Team McCain is pursuing a scorched-earth strategy: pick up on every word Obama says, claim outrage, do an ad or two about it, try to keep him off his game.
So when Obama talks about McCain's economic policies as being just like those belonging to the White House, and makes his lipstick on a pig comment, it becomes a way for the McCain camp to cry foul and say he was referring to Palin.
Then they run an ad called "disrespectful" so women will become outraged.
Then Obama responds, with an ad mocking McCain as an out-of-touch, computer-illiterate candidate who can't possibly understand your problems.
OK, we get it: He's old.
Here's the problem for both of these campaigns: This bickering won't sustain the rest of the campaign. You can't argue about change by saying you were there first. You can't claim that experience -- no matter how much -- is enough to lead. You can't make a blatant play for special-interest groups (and that includes women) and wind up with a united country, even if you win.
At some point, the voters need to hear what you would do to solve their problems. At some point, the voters need to have some confidence you can cross party lines.
The economy is in a tailspin; Wall Street is imploding. The budget deficit is skyrocketing. And if voters accept this kind of a campaign, we will all get what we deserve.