WASHINGTON—John McCain won the first presidential debate, but Barack Obama probably won the election. McCain was the impatient tactician, Obama the patient strategist. Obama did not set out to debate against McCain so much as to counter the perception that he is a rookie, a closet Muslim radical or a foreigner. His suave demeanor was intended to make people comfortable with him. In the wild, the hungry wolf will always devour the elegant gazelle. In the debate, and perhaps in this election, the opposite seems true.

But here is my problem. All elections should be about one thing: the extent of government power. After all, the power of government is what a presidential candidate seeks. And all elections, until such time as a cultural consensus is reached one way or the other, should have at least one major candidate arguing in defense of civil society against too much state power and one major candidate making the opposite argument. Whether they end up doing what they promise is a different matter.

Every important issue in the current U.S. election lends itself to a profound debate between government intervention and individual responsibility—whether it be the $700 billion government bailout of the financial system, taxation, the debt, the viability of Social Security and Medicare, trade or, just as important, the military.

The first debate confirmed that neither of the two major candidates has a profound belief in what the government’s role should be. Obama has a big-government penchant, but he is too modern a politician to profess it without reserve.

And there is something else holding him back. He embodies the American dream: His own life experience belies his big-government intellectual formation and the politics of resentment that some of his followers would like to see him adopt. All of which makes for the pragmatist he describes himself as being and deprives us of a visionary who dares to argue consistently for bigger government in this election.

In the case of McCain, there is a fundamental contradiction between his neoconservative belief in the U.S. military as the agent of good in the world and his small-government positions on issues such as budgetary earmarks. And he is so sheepish in his approach to overall taxation, entitlement programs and the expansion of choice in education that he comes across as another pragmatist. Which deprives us of a true champion of less government in this election.

McCain missed a golden opportunity to make good on his self-professed free-enterprise convictions by failing to oppose the bailout of the financial system and rising up against Wall Street’s crony capitalism in the name of the taxpayers (even some neoconservatives, such as Bill Kristol, suggested he do just that). There are many alternatives to the Treasury’s outright purchase of the Wall Street’s mortgage-backed securities. A free-enterprise candidate should have opposed what would amount to the greatest enhancement of government power since the New Deal and explained why.

There have been many memorable elections in which the candidates conveyed opposing visions of the tension between what Albert Jay Nock used to call “state power” and “social power”: Barry Goldwater against Lyndon B. Johnson, Margaret Thatcher against Neil Kinnock, Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter, or Vaclav Klaus against a coalition of former Communists in Czechoslovakia in 1992. Regardless of what side of the fault line one stood on, or what the ensuing administrations ended up doing, those elections were memorable in that the players understood exactly what elections should be about.

Many factors—among them the collapse of the Soviet empire, globalization and mass migration—have ingrained in people’s minds the notion that having a big idea is tantamount to ideological intolerance, even fanaticism. The result is the triumph of form over substance.

Not that form is unimportant. Obama’s grace and level-headedness in the midst of major calamities are a delight to watch. The plasticity of his candidacy—that ability to move in sync with the times—is part of the reason why so many young people see in him the man of the future. And McCain has also given us thrilling moments—particularly when the 72-year-old man took risks that were juvenile in their audacity, such as his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, with total disrespect for what the establishment might think.

But when the dust settles, where is the big idea?