The political polling season is already upon us (a bit prematurely, but everything is ahead of itself these days), and polls taken in the past couple of weeks reveal a pattern that commentators are busy explaining. When the question asked is, which party do you trust to do a better job with the economy, the war, global warming, the environment, education, the deficit, immigration, reputation abroad, the administration of justice, the rebuilding of New Orleans?, the Democratic party wins — and in some categories by impressive margins. The same polls show that 60 to 70 percent of the American people believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction, and there is no doubt that President Bush’s rating numbers are also headed in the wrong direction. Why then do Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama consistently lose to Rudy Giuliani and John McCain in head-to-head matchups? (The three Democrats do outpoll Mitt Romney, but who wouldn’t?)

The answer usually given is that it’s early. Two years out voters are reacting to personalities, or rather, to their perception of personalities. When things get more serious, and the candidates are put under the lens of relentless scrutiny and have to answer hard questions about hard issues, the ratings, we are told, will turn less on personality and more on policy, and the numbers will change.

Maybe so, but I suspect that in 18 months the personality profiles now given to us by the media will still be in place and remain the focus of political commentary. We’ll still have Giuliani, the stalwart 9/11 hero and crime-fighting mayor (a little tainted by Bernard Kerik and the messiest personal life this side of Britney Spears); John McCain, the stalwart Vietnam War hero and straight shooter (a little tainted by claims that Baghdad is a nice town for an afternoon stroll); Hillary Clinton, the smart, well-organized, effective senator (a little burdened by baggage she is unlikely ever to shed); Barack Obama, the charismatic, eloquent harbinger of a new day (a little suspect because the glittering facade seems unaccompanied by even one substantive idea); and John Edwards, the up-from-poverty trial lawyer and former senator with an inspiring wife (a little defensive when he is asked why a self-advertised candidate of the people has recently built himself a mansion.) When September 2008 rolls around, two of these characters – or perhaps a dark horse drawn from the current list of Bill Richardson, Christopher Dodd, Joe Biden, Al Gore, Fred Thompson, Sam Brownback, Tommy Thompson and Newt Gingrich – will be paraded before the citizenry, which will be asked (endlessly), “Whom would you rather have running the country, protecting our troops, educating our children, and throwing out the first ball on opening day?

It is the wrong question. The right question is “Whom would you rather have exercising the power of appointment?” That’s not a sexy question, but it gets to the heart of what electing a president means. It means that within a few weeks of his or her inauguration, different people will be administering and guiding the nation’s key institutions. In the past several elections there has been some attention paid to Supreme Court appointments and the difference that would supposedly be made by the elevation to the court of a liberal or conservative jurist. But Supreme Court vacancies are like papal elections – they don’t come around very often, and you can’t sit around waiting for them to occur. Meanwhile the day-to-day business of governing has to be done, and the people who will do it will be the people the president appoints.

From that fact follows a strategy I would recommend to the Democrats, who seem to believe that they will win in ’08 simply because the Bush presidency has imploded: Run against the other party – not against its candidate or the sitting president (although you should do a little bit of that too), but against what the other party usually does when it gets into office. What it does (based on the record of the past six years) is appoint cabinet members and ambassadors who are either jokes, incompetent cronies or malign subverters of the Constitution.

President Bush has had two attorneys general; the first, John Ashcroft, was an ideologue who was defeated in an election by a dead man and who, once in office, turned out to be more interested in clothing naked statues than in protecting your rights. The incumbent (at least at the moment of this writing) is an amiable mediocrity who doesn’t know what goes on in his own agency, but does know that torture is O.K. as long as we are doing it (because we’re moral, you see). The secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, can barely find New Orleans, never mind fix it. The secretary of defense until November was regarded as a disaster by everyone except his boss and one or two editorial writers for The New York Post.

The first Bush secretary of education was in way over his head and distinguished himself by declaring that the members of the National Education Association were terrorists because they disagreed with his views. (This is a favorite administration argument whenever the going gets tough.) The present secretary of education doesn’t seem to have a plan beyond extending the unfunded mandates of the No Child Left Behind program. Successive secretaries of the interior have given us poisoned water, decimated forests, reduced protection of endangered species and oil drilling anywhere and everywhere. Successive secretaries of the treasury have contrived to turn a budget surplus into a deficit we’ll be paying for until China bails us out. And does anyone really think that it was a good idea to appoint John Bolton ambassador to the United Nations because a) he disdained the institution and b) every diplomat in the world disliked him? (I won’t even mention Brownie of “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie.”)

Making fun of these bunglers is not the point (although it’s certainly satisfying). The point is the damage they have done to the country simply by using the resources of their agencies to effect ends and produce results few Americans would like if they were made aware of them, day after day after day. Voters may not remember the names of cabinet officers and other appointees, but they will remember what has been done to their rights, their water, their school districts and their pocketbooks. It is often said that the Republican party succeeds on a national level because voters know what it stands for. What it stands for, or should be understood to stand for, is the appointment to high positions of hacks and zealots who do these terrible things.

It is that consequence of electing a Republican president that should be stressed. Democrats should make the power of appointment the electorate’s prime consideration. And they will be in a good position to do so because the Republican nominee, whoever he is (no “she’s” in sight) will not be able to repudiate the appointments of the outgoing administration. He will have to answer for the sins committed by the incumbent’s toadies, and he will have no answer. So the question shouldn’t be what will this nominee do for the country, but whom will this nominee put in charge of the institutions that determine the quality of everyone’s life, and why should we trust someone who comes from a party that has performed so disastrously in this area for so long?

In his new book, “The New American Story,” Bill Bradley urges us to choose country over party. It is stirring counsel, but it is counsel we should not heed, because it substitutes high-sounding rhetoric for the realities of politics, and especially for the reality that it really makes a difference if one party rather than another is deciding who will be running what.

Parties matter.