The increasing ugliness of the presidential campaign comes, sad to say, as no surprise. When events start to favor one candidate, leaving the other with nothing new of substance to grab onto, the trailing candidate is going to go negative -- in this case, fiercely, ridiculously so.
The point is to drive up the leader's negative ratings -- basically, pulling him down to the other's level. Meanwhile, the leading candidate responds in kind to counter the tactic, and the campaign becomes about the campaign, not about the issues that matter to voters.
So it is today, as John McCain and Sarah Palin, trailing in their race, resuscitate old issues about Barack Obama's relationship with his former pastor and, even more remotely, with Weather Underground founder William Ayers, who was a radical when Obama was 8 years old. (As a community activist Obama briefly and unfortunately served on a board with Ayers and his political career began with an Ayers-hosted fundraiser. Palin has called that "palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.")
In response, Obama has resurrected the Keating Five scandal that humiliated McCain, and other reports have surfaced about McCain's stint in the 1980s on the advisory board to the U.S. chapter of an international group linked to ultra-right-wing death squads in Central America.
Has anyone heard that the economy is in trouble? Or that soldiers are dying in two wars? Well, yes, and that's McCain's problem right now. Many voters have turned away from his view of the war in Iraq and appear to be taking him at his word that dealing with the economy is not his strong suit.
That problem showed up in Tuesday's second debate between the presidential candidates. With the nation facing historic and daunting problems, the debate's "town hall" format discouraged the kind of attacks the candidates are making on one another. That left them to discuss the economy and the war, but with not much new to say, they did little but repeat well-known positions. Inevitably, that hurts McCain, whose campaign is faltering as polls suggest movement toward Obama.
Sadly, there is no reason to think the tenor of the campaign will improve over its final 3 1/2 weeks. To the detriment of the republic, most campaigns now resort to tearing down the opponent personally or the opponent's issues misleadingly -- often in television attack ads launched by parties or organizations instead of the candidates themselves -- instead of selling the candidate's positions. Local-campaign evidence abounds. On the national scene, barring some event that alters the status quo, McCain will probably continue to attack Obama on matters designed not to draw policy distinctions, but to damage his reputation. Obama will respond, playing defense as Election Day approaches.
Presidential elections are not ordinary events, even at the most placid moments in the nation's life. But this year's contest holds more significance than any in most of a century. Americans deserve a campaign that acknowledges that fact. They are being cheated of it.