Michael Tomasky of The Guardian discusses this very matter in an article posted today. He says:
Superficialities and attacks...usually dominate. We understand this. In fact, more than a few liberals have spent the last four years trying to persuade Democrats to be every bit as superficial and nasty as the Republicans are at election time. But this year, something feels different. Voters are actually paying closer attention to issues.
Tomasky says that it is the Wall Street crisis and the ensuing economic breakdown that has brought this about, with a huge assist from America's declining standing in the eyes of the world. I agree that this is the filter through which it has found its most recent focus, but I do not think that our current crisis alone explains everything. In fact, I think this has been coming for quite a while.
Take a look back at the primaries. As Obama's forward-thinking campaign kept pushing Americans to use their brains, to consider issues and ideas and substance instead of platitudes and sound bites, his momentum increased, at first slowly, then like a steamroller wiping out everyone in his path until the only one left was the formidable Hillary Clinton. And what did Hillary, by then in a desperate condition, do? She went negative. She played by the Republican playbook, the old rules.
Arianna Huffington, in an interview with Wolf Blitzer last May, said that Clinton "has really taken a page out of Karl Rove’s playbook," and cited most specifically her successful, at the time, "3 AM" ad.
Huffington compared Clinton’s “3 a.m.” ad to advertising against Sen. John Kerry orchestrated by Rove during President Bush’s 2004 re-election bid. “The assumption was that if people elected Obama they would not be as safe as if they elected her.” “Their children would not be as safe,” added Huffington.
At first, the "kitchen sink" strategy improved her standing, but only at the cost of increasing her already high negatives. And the Obama campaign ultimately succeeded in countering all of the negatives effectively in the most unbelievable of ways: by presenting facts to the electorate. Yes, it took awhile for facts to sink in through all of the hubbub created by the right wing punditry (and the hillaryis44 folks), but it did sink in. Obama won the nomination.
Now this in no way is meant as a condemnation of Clinton's strategy or of her followers. She did what she felt she needed to do, and they supported the candidate of their choice with gusto, as indeed they had every right to do. But the negative attacks that have worked in other years--and indeed worked in the short term at times this year--actually redounded on the attacker, and the public chose the candidate who (though he can attack in response as fiercely as anyone) appeals to their intelligence, not their base animal instincts.
We've seen all of this playing out again with McCain's campaign. With absolutely no issues to run on, with America's economy in tatters after eight years of Bush policies (which he supported), with Bush's foreign policy, as evinced most especially by the war in Iraq, (which he also supported) a shambles, he pretended to run an honorable campaign while actually running a filthy one that fooled absolutely no one. He gained no traction at all until just before the conventions, when his "Celebrity" attack ad found an audience, but given the vicissitudes of the voters in this election year that traction soon slipped away.
As the "Palin bounce" dwindles into the Palin pit, it's only natural that McCain will try again, full force, with an attack strategy he has never paused (or even "suspended") since August. As Aiden Maconachy said last February about the Clinton campaign, "People who are losing tend to cry foul and shout louder." And indeed, the Huffington Post is now reporting that
The McCain campaign has now shifted virtually 100 percent of his national ad spending into negative ads attacking Obama, a detailed breakdown of his ad buys reveals.
And his surrogates, including the recently "freed" Sarah Palin, are attacking as well. Virtually all unbiased opinions (when you could find any) of the VP debate focused on the fact that her "answers" (which were rarely in fact answers at all but mini-stump speeches and talking points that often were completely off topic, as even she acknowledged) almost completely lacked any specificity. Instead, she spent roughly half of the time praising herself and McCain for being "mavericks" and the rest attacking Obama and Biden. Meanwhile, Joe Biden, who managed quite a few attacks himself against McCain, did so by at all times derogating the Republican's ideas and programs, not the man himself. And Biden's specificity and detail has never been questioned by anyone. He is a walking encyclopedia of Senate information.
And even as Palin talks about Ayers and Wrights, trying to resurrect old "scandals" that bubbled and popped last spring, the economy continues to tank. Today's Dow fell another 800 points, breaking last week's all time record for a one-day drop-off. And McCain's camp continues to smear and attack and lie and distract. And Obama? As reported by Mike Baker,
Obama said he would keep talking about the economy and didn't answer questions about the associations McCain's campaign has questioned.
"The notion that we would want to brush that aside and engage in the usual political shenanigans and smear tactics that have come to characterize too many political campaigns is not what the American people are looking for.
Barack Obama is not the candidate who would allow Rovian smears and swiftboating to derail him anyway, but the reality is that 2008 is not the year of politics as usual. We have entered a new political arena. Whether it is for now or forever remains to be seen, but right now the shift is evident: though a lot of folks remain easily swayed, the majority of American voters have grown up. And frankly, it's about damn time.