The old joke has old Mrs. Jones being beaten up by four muggers. A neighbor looks out her window and sees the scene. Before running to call the cops, she yells to a bystander, "Hey, why don't you go and help out?"
When he turns and looks up, she recognizes Mrs. Jones' son-in-law.
"Oh, no," he responds. "Four is enough."
The classier politicians try to abide by this convention. Their surrogates, proxies, representatives, go-betweens, bagmen, cronies, cohorts, fellow travelers, mouthpieces, hatchet men, henchmen, running dogs, gophers, spinners and handlers all trash the opposition. These middlemen are there specifically to cut out the beginning-man. In fact, they will tell you that their principal would never say the things they are saying because he is such a downright gentleman. He likes to look only at the positive side of things. He believes that his positions stand for themselves. He regrets that other campaigns have waded into the gutter. He believes that America needs a new kind of politics, a politics of affirmation, a politics of vision, a politics of idealism. None of that slime for a man of his supreme gentility.
Barack Obama initiated his campaign advancing this premise. Let Axelrod wave the axe and Brazile shoot the bazooka. His hands were too full carrying the hope to be swinging the punches. His feet were too busy marching toward change to kick his opponents. That seemed to be working out pretty well for a while, when the tea leaves were signaling an herbal sort of bloodless victory. He took his victory lap around the Autobahn and returned from his conquest of Europe with nary a wilt in his laurels.
But a funny thing happened to him on his way from the Forum. McCain took an exciting running mate and the polls were dead even. And then... and then...
...the true face of Obama emerged. If Palin has accomplished nothing else, she has certainly done one thing. She has unmasked Obama as an angry man. Suddenly he is spewing bitterness everywhere. He runs ads mocking McCain for not using a computer. He blames McCain for economic conditions. He savages McCain for suggesting a commission to analyze the regulatory situation. He runs scurrilous advertisements in Spanish that distort Rush Limbaugh's words about immigration and then blames McCain for Limbaugh. (Kudos to Jake Tapper at ABC News for thoroughly debunking this two-tier fraud.)
No more Mister Nice Guy for Obama, and the difference is telling. His voice has a new snarl. Suddenly he is the commissar, the Kommandant, the drill sergeant: "Get in their faces," he exhorts his acolytes. The battle now takes to the streets, hand-to-hand, house-to-house combat. The Democrats are shouting that McCain has no honor, they are going after Palin's husband and daughter. This is what they used to call in wrestling a Texas Death Match with no holds barred. Or we might say, no bars held. The phony bar they set for the "new politics" was breached by themselves first.
Now we get to see how a community organizer organizes the community. Can Obama win as yet another angry Democrat, spitting against Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Swift-boat politics and the ghost of Lee Atwater? I would like to believe that the answer is no, that voters will recoil from the sight of the animus and the venomous, the odium and opprobrium. The burnished Obama has been tarnished, while Sarah Palin has furnished the varnish for McCain.
Going by the book, this last paragraph should express my regret at this regression. I should affect a pious hope for a finer campaign. But I have grown cynical, watching these pretensions dissipate so many times before. Elections are a vicious clawing for advantage, and it is time to stop imagining otherwise. Where some hope can still obtain is in the realm of governance, that perhaps whoever scathes his way to the top will be gracious upon arrival. This leaves me with only one option, to end with the companion to that joke. A man sees that Mrs. Jones is drowning while her son-in-law stands calmly on the beach watching. "Aren't you going to help?" "Just watch," the son-in-law replies. Sure enough, a team of sharks rescues the old woman and tows her to shore. Professional courtesy.