A campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain once offered enormous possibilities for something new. Instead, the two presumptive nominees have opened their campaigns for the White House with what looks and sounds like the kind of politics both have promised to leave behind.
Since Obama wrapped up the Democratic nomination a few weeks ago, he and McCain have served up a series of indignant exchanges over foreign policy, terrorism, the economy, energy policy and campaign money.
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McCain has given a series of policy speeches and Obama is beginning to do the same. Whatever substance they may contain has been buried in negative counterattacks from the opposing camp, designed to turn ideas into stereotypes and candidates into caricatures.
In the hands of Obama's advisers, McCain is nothing more than the third coming of President Bush. To McCain's staff, Obama is merely a liberal, naíve, arrogant extension of what Democrats have been offering for years.
Gone in the early stages of this campaign is any sense of the uniqueness of the two nominees. McCain is certainly no garden-variety Republican, and the historic possibilities of Obama's candidacy cannot be overstated. But those realities have been submerged beneath a tactical shouting match that feeds the cable culture of contemporary politics. Don't blame the media for this. The campaigns have deliberately adopted postures of hyper-agressiveness to set the early tone. The testosterone levels appear extremely high. No charge however small or incidental can go unanswered. No proposal, no matter how innocuous or provocative, can be discussed calmly or intelligently. That led a McCain surrogate to respond to Obama's comments on the rights of terrorist detainees, a topic on which reasonable people can differ, as ”delusional.“ It led to an Obama surrogate to describe as ”stupid“ the positions McCain has taken on the Iraq war, though it is clearly arguable that the surge strategy has helped to reduce violence and U.S. casualties.
Both candidates have contributed to this. Obama tarnished his reputation as a new-style politician by deciding not to take public funds for the fall campaign, despite a pledge to do so if his Republican opponent would do the same. McCain has hurt himself and his reputation as an independent thinker by reversing course on past positions, whether Bush tax cuts — which he did long ago — or opening up coastal areas to offshore drilling.
It is difficult to believe that Americans are enjoying all this — or even paying close attention to it. It is still early. Perhaps there will be town-hall meetings or other forums before the conventions that will set them on a different course, although the idea is languishing for now.
On a host of issues, the differences between the candidates are profound and should provoke a vigorous debate. Both candidates once promised that such a debate would be civil and respectful. But right now, the presidential campaign appears to be more a rerun of the kind of polarized battles of the recent past than something that heralds something new.