Since a vital function of party politics, recently on display in Denver and St. Paul, is that of distraction, we can safely say that Sarah Palin is doing a fine job, admirably bipartisan in her services to Republicans and Democrats. The nomination of the lively and attractive governor of Alaska as Vice President diverts Republicans from dismay at the obvious difficulties of winning an election against an opponent with much more money while saddled with George Bush in the White House and, at the head of the ticket, an elderly and unstable habitué of Washington for more than thirty years running as the foe of big government and the standard-bearer of new ideas, none of which he and the other keynote Republican speakers have been able to identify.

Simultaneously, the idealistic younger voters whose mass turnout on November 4 is vital for Barack Obama deride Palin’s enthusiasm for shooting wolves from helicopters, thus distracting themselves from unpleasant reflections on the candidate of hope and change, whose prime foreign policy commitment is to increase the US military presence in Afghanistan and hence the certainty that Afghan children will be shot from the air or blown up by US gunships in steadily increasing numbers.

As Obama said in 2002, he is not against war per se. Wars mean dead children. Now he wants to send 10,000 more troops to Afghanistan. And exactly at the moment liberals were diverting themselves with Palin’s shifting posture on pork barrel projects in Alaska, Obama was doing a major somersault of his own. He has joined John McCain in vigorously endorsing the performance of US forces in Iraq, telling Fox’s Bill O’Reilly that the surge "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams," a craven surrender to Republican mythmaking and a club McCain will be able to whack Obama with in the upcoming debates.

Liberals delightedly ridicule Palin’s Christian certitudes about the truth of the Bible, the sanctity of life from the moment of conception, the advisability of sexual abstinence for teenagers and so forth. This is a distraction, one I find rather pleasant, from the impalpability of Obama’s positions, which shift, as with the surge in Iraq or with the rights and wrongs of the conflict between Russia and Georgia, and usually attain maximum clarity when Obama is ensuring that he won’t be ambushed from the right.

There are certitudes about our political situation that were not addressed in Denver or St. Paul.

Indeed, it would take the pen of Swift to depict a scene more ludicrous than the recent Republican convention, featuring thunderous denunciations of big government a few hours before Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson rushed to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the largest nationalization in history, privatizing the profits and nationalizing the losses, sticking the taxpayers with a $300 billion tab.

The press referred tactfully to the misleading procedures identified by Treasury accountants scrutinizing Fannie and Freddie’s ledgers. In cruder language the operators of these two giants had been engaged in the pleasant activity of cooking the books by borrowing at low-interest government rates, selling the repackaged mortgages at a higher-interest markup and then lying about their actual exposures. "Fannie and Freddie were almost single-handedly supporting the junk mortgage market that was making Wall Street rich," economist Michael Hudson told CounterPunch the Monday after the takeover, protecting themselves from regulatory harassment by shoveling campaign contributions at the relevant lawmakers sitting on the financial committees in Washington.

Now the Treasury is refloating these two huge casinos and sending them down the river again, so that Wall Street can stay happy and China and the other overseas lenders can be assured that the money they’re lending the United States to finance activities like strafing Afghan children from the air is at least partly secured.

Even Swift could not depict the brazen effrontery of McCain offering himself as the foe of the special interests when his "unofficial" economic adviser is former Senator Phil Gramm, the key player in Congress in the late ’90s in the deregulatory assaults that overthrew Glass-Steagall, opened the door to the derivatives scams and greased Wall Street’s wheels as it plunged the economy into its present crisis. Obama alluded obliquely to Gramm without naming him in his Denver speech, mentioning the jeers of a top McCain adviser about Americans suffering from a "mental recession" and becoming "a nation of whiners." But why not identify McCain’s detestable associate? The problem is that co-conspiring in Gramm’s deregulatory rampages in the late ’90s was the Clinton Administration, spurred on by the Democratic Leadership Council. On the ticket with Obama is that lifelong serf of the banks, Joe Biden. Obama himself has been heavily staked by Wall Street.

When they look back on it, people will surely see this election as one of the larger missed opportunities in the nation’s history for scrutiny and shake-up of our economic and imperial arrangements: an unpopular war abroad, brazen thievery by the rich and powerful at home, widespread discontent of huge slabs of the electorate, beleaguered by debt, low wages and joblessness. How easy it should have been for a politician as eloquent and intelligent as Obama to create an irresistible popular constituency challenging business as usual. But what’s positively eerie is the cautious sensitivity of his political antennas, alerting him time and again to the risks of actually saying or pledging anything substantive by way of challenge to present arrangements. Small wonder it’s hard to remember much that he says, because so little that he does say is ever substantively memorable or surprising or exciting; no wonder that Sarah Palin is proving so successful a distraction.