None of this, of course, absolves McCain of what he has done. He has sacrificed his honor and dignity with astonishing enthusiasm. He has become much worse than "just another politician." He is a politician who was once more than that, and used that reputation to go lower than the rest.
I'm a terrible cynic, I think, because I just can't get worked up about the kind of stuff Ezra and others have mind here. (Even when I think a given attack ad crosses a line, I'm thinking as much about the line between productive attacks and counterproductive ones as the line between honor and dishonor.) For much the same reasons that I never hated the Clintons, I can't bring myself to worry about whether McCain has kept his "dignity" sufficiently intact while slugging it out for the Presidency: The point of being in national politics is to win elections and govern the country in accordance with whatever goals led you into the arena in the first place, not to please columnists who disagree with you on ideological grounds but appreciate a finely-tuned sense of political principle. And anyone who believes that McCain is running a uniquely dishonorable campaign for the presidency just doesn't have enough historical perspective - or enough distance from their own passions - to comment sensibly on contemporary politics. Every successful politician and political movement has to master the art of below-the-belt, us-versus-them political engagement, because that's how democratic politics works: You can appeal to the electorate's reason all you want, but you have to appeal to their passions as well, and that means making them dislike and fear the other side as often as it means making them love you.
So if you're a liberal and you think FDR, LBJ and Bill Clinton didn't play the same game - and play it damn well, which is why they won elections and the other side lost - then you're kidding yourself. If you think John McCain hasn't been playing this game for his whole career, then you're kidding yourself: It's just that he used to fight dirty against his enemies within the GOP (social conservatives, for instance, or immigration restrictionists, or Mitt Romney), and how he's fighting dirty against a candidate that the punditocracy supports, rather than disdains. And if you think that many of the same people who bleat the loudest about the evils of "Rove-style" politics aren't happy to similarly dirty their hands for the sake of their own causes and candidates - well, you need only look at some of the coverage of Sarah Palin's family to see how quickly principle gives way to expedience when power is at stake.
Michael Brendan Dougherty's response to the liberal handwringing that greeted the GOP's "disrespectful" convention sums up my thoughts on this front, I think:
If you are in politics for "uplift" you are in the wrong business. Obama learned about politics from reading Saul Alinsky, not Chicken Soup for the Soul. Can we grow up and talk about politics as the enterprise of obtaining and exercising political power?
How much did Obama really learn from Alinsky? We're about to find out.
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