A COUPLE NIGHTS AGO, I found myself in hearty agreement with James Carville, the Democratic political consultant and TV celebrity. The occasion was a debate between the two of us in Chicago. And where we found common ground was on this year's election campaign: It's dreary. There's no big issue rippling through campaigns across the country, no stirring debate. More interesting than the actual contests have been the side events, such as the replacement of candidates in New Jersey and Minnesota, and secondary issues like the referendum in Los Angeles on secession by Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. But let's be straight. The outcome of the election is important. It's the campaign itself that's lacking.

Carville's contention is that Democrats haven't vigorously argued the economic case against President Bush and Republicans. He's free to say this because he hasn't worked for pay in a Democratic campaign since 1992 (he consults in foreign campaigns). And he has a point. The Democratic case may be weak or wrongheaded, but it's insufficient merely to say the budget surplus has shrunk and the stock market has fallen. Carville thinks Democrats are missing a chance to win the House and build a bigger majority in the Senate. I doubt he's right, but at least the campaign would sparkle if there were a real economic debate between Democrats and Republicans.

The truth, of course, is that Democrats have no economic alternative to Bush. They don't like his tax cut, but they're afraid to insist on its repeal. They don't have a proposal to bail out middle-income investors. And they don't have a measure to boost capital investment or job growth. Republicans aren't much better. BusinessWeek, the most liberal of the three national business magazines, is calling for advancing to 2003 the 2004 and 2006 phases of Bush's tax cuts. That goes beyond what most Republicans are advocating, which is simply to make the 10-year tax reduction permanent. Worse, House Republicans dropped their bill to help embattled small investors.

On Iraq, Democrats outfoxed Republicans, with the result that the election will not be a national referendum on American military action to depose Saddam Hussein. Of Democratic members of Congress in competitive races, only three voted against Bush's war resolution. One of those was Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, who died in a plane crash last week. Another is Rep. Jim Maloney of Connecticut, who was already likely to lose. The third, Rep. Julia Carson of Indiana, is in a tight race. In any case, there's no serious discussion of Iraq or terrorism in the campaign, nationally.

There might have been if Democrats accepted the invitation of host Tim Russert to debate their GOP opponents on "Meet the Press." Nine Democrats, but only two Republicans, said no. This makes sense if you're a Democrat like Ron Kirk in Texas, or Jean Carnahan in Missouri, who doesn't want their Senate campaign to revolve around that issue and who isn't able to talk cogently about it in the first place. By the way, Democrats used to be the great champions of debates. Now, in contest after contest this year, they've become more debate-shy than Republicans, who've never really warmed to debates.

As usual, Democrats are blasting away on the Social Security issue, prompting a less-than-edifying debate on that important subject. They accuse Republicans of favoring that worst of all things, "privatization." And many Republicans, rather than standing their ground and supporting the partial privatization measure that would allow recipients to invest some of their payroll taxes, are fleeing from the very thought of reforming Social Security at all. Who can blame them? The measure was proposed by Bush during the 2000 campaign, but it doesn't look like he'll get around to pursuing it until his second term in the White House, should there be one.

With no debate on Iraq or the economy, that's left journalists with some of these campaign subjects to grab onto: Arnold Schwarzenegger and his after-school spending initiative in California; how ex-House members who term-limited themselves are doing in races for state offices; elections chief Katherine Harris's likely election to a Florida House seat; and Bill Clinton's intrusion in various campaigns. Anyway, here's one last thought from Carville, an admirer of House Republican whip Tom DeLay's tough, relentless, partisan style. "If DeLay were a Democrat, Democrats would control the House now." Who knows? Carville might be correct on this one.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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