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New Wine in Old Bottles

In this Jan. 30, 2007 file photo, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama greet on Capitol Hill in Washington. Since then both have emerged as unique leaders and conventional campaigners. (Associated Press)

By Dan Balz
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 a repeat of 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. Their aides have gone farther, with snarling conference call putdowns and taunting e-mails flowing constantly out of the Chicago and Crystal City headquarters.

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, naive, 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-aggressiveness 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. He had promised to sit down with McCain to discuss the whole issue of money before making any decision.

Obama's decision may have made political sense, but it was a demonstration of old politics, not new politics, and his reasoning for refusing public funds was as tortured as anything he has had to say in his campaign.

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. His campaign, in the view of some of his own supporters, has allowed itself to show an angry and resentful face that they believe is contrary to McCain at his best.

It is difficult to believe that Americans are enjoying all this -- or even paying close attention to it. The attack-counterattack cycle is so quick that only the most devoted of political aficionados can keep up, and the tone is so relentlessly critical that only the most partisan will applaud it.

The long battle between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, for all its intensity and competitiveness, rarely reached the levels of negativity and petulance seen in the opening weeks of the general election. Whenever Obama and Clinton crossed a line, they seemed quickly to step back, mindful of the consequences of letting their contest get out of hand. So far there seems to be no such impulse governing either the Obama or McCain campaigns as they go after each other.

Of all the candidates who sought the presidency this year, McCain and Obama seemed the least likely to fall so quickly into old habits. The question is whether the opening weeks are a true reflection of their characters and the kind of campaigns they intended to run or a temporary departure.

It is still early. The two candidates have the capacity to elevate their contest. 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.

By Web Politics Editor  |  June 25, 2008; 12:06 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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