When it became clear that this general election would be contested by Barack Obama and John McCain, there was at least some hope that the campaign would be different than what we had seen in recent years. Maybe it wouldn't be two white knights waging a noble battle. But there was reason to believe that the two would, at the very least, maintain a decent, respectful tone and keep disagreements substantive.
Obviously, that hasn't happened. Obama is not a helpless victim here; he's played a role in the disintegration of the campaign's uniqueness. He backed out on the idea of participating in joint town halls with McCain. He's reversed himself on public financing in an effort to raise ungodly amounts of money. His campaign has established rapid response teams that rival those assembled by the 2000/2004 Bush campaigns.
All of those moves are justifiable and understandable, but they have had the effect of rendering this campaign a thoroughly conventional affair. Obama might be a unique candidate, and I believe he is, but there's nothing unique about the campaign around him.
But it's McCain who has taken the most decisive step into the muck. You've undoubtedly heard by now the allegation that he slung at Obama:
"I had the courage and the judgment to say that I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war," John McCain said during a Rochester, N.H., town meeting on July 22. "It seems to me that Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign."
I wanted to give this comment time to simmer. I wanted to give McCain some time to re-think the line and, if not apologize for it, and least quietly let it slip into the ether. He has not. In fact, the allegation has become a go-to attack in his speeches and interviews. Instead of abandoning it, he has embraced the line and reiterated his belief in its validity.
So let's be perfectly clear about what McCain is saying. Break down the statement, remove the parallelism used as a rhetorical flourish, and McCain is saying, "Barack Obama knows The Surge is a success. He knows it will ultimately result in victory. He knows that reversing that policy and withdrawing troops from Iraq under his timetable will result in defeat. But he is deliberately advocating a strategy he knows will end with an American defeat because he thinks it's the popular choice."
That might not quite rise to the level of a treason accusation leveled by one sitting senator against another. But it's darn close, and it certainly alleges disloyalty. It certainly says that Obama is unwilling to defend his country.
What's bizarre is that McCain has been leveling a perfectly legitimate, Surge-oriented attack on Obama for weeks, often in the same speeches where he later uses the "rather lose a war" line. It's not hard to tell the difference.
Attack One: Senator Obama opposed The Surge, which I championed and which has been a stunning success in reducing violence in Iraq. That goes directly to evaluations of our judgment and military wisdom. Furthermore, Senator Obama has refused to acknowledge The Surge's success, showing a Bush-esque stubbornness and unwillingness to adapt his views to changing circumstances.
Attack Two: Barack Obama knows The Surge is a success. He knows it will ultimately result in victory. He knows reversing that policy and withdrawing troops from Iraq under his timetable will result in defeat. But he is deliberately advocating a strategy he knows will end with an American defeat because he thinks it's the popular choice.
Attack One is a harsh, but entirely legitimate attack. Intelligence and judgment are key for any president, and a presidential campaign should be about discerning which candidate shows themselves superior in those qualities. McCain is well within his rights to question Obama's strategic wisdom. I quite obviously disagree with the details of his argument, but it's not an argument that crosses any sort of line.
Attack Two reads like it was crafted by Karl Rove, and it's the route McCain has decided to travel. It's a relic of the 2002 midterm campaign and the 2004 presidential campaign. It's an attack that doesn't focus on the other guy's intelligence or his policies. It attempts to eviscerate his patriotism and convince the public that Obama is simply not committed to American success overseas.
It is, in short, a brutal, flagrantly out-of-bounds smear. The Bush administration has spent the last eight years accusing all who dissent or disagree of disloyalty or, at the very best, an extreme lack of patriotism. There was reason to hope that John McCain wouldn't stoop to those levels. Tragically, he has disabused us of those notions.