"WE'VE HAD about as positive a presidential campaign that we've seen in maybe a generation," Barack Obama told Fox Business Network yesterday. Perhaps, but that's not saying much. The gravity of the issues -- war and terrorism abroad, an economy struggling with soaring energy prices and mounting foreclosures at home -- is belied by the triviality of the campaign debate. The political discourse is dominated by misleading sound bites and blistering e-mail accusations. Each campaign pounces on a misstep -- or alleged misstep -- by the other, or someone loosely associated with the other, and seeks to inflate it into the telling faux pas of the day, or at least the hour. In this, the campaigns are aided and abetted by a 24-7 news mentality that needs fresh, and easily digestible, material to keep the audience entertained without taxing its attention span.
This is not, as Mr. Obama's comments suggest, a new development, yet the velocity, ferocity and constancy of the assaults have intensified in this cycle. The uproar over Obama vetter James A. Johnson gives way to the uproar over John McCain adviser Charles R. Black Jr. Neither faux scandal offers particular insight into how either candidate would handle the weighty issues facing the next president. Little matter. No shot remains untaken, no derogatory adjective goes unused. Why debate health-care policy when you can attack a surrogate? The theory seems to be that the victor is whichever campaign can yell "flip-flop" the loudest.
The sad part is that the country will be choosing between two presidential candidates who can do better -- and who, as Post reporter Dan Balz correctly noted the other day, have said they want to run a different, more civil and more substantive campaign. Indeed, underneath the volleys of vicious triviality, the candidates are engaged in serious discussion, and serious disagreement, about important issues, from tax policy to treatment of detainees to health care. On energy, for instance, Mr. McCain wants to lift the ban on offshore drilling; Mr. Obama does not. Mr. McCain pushes for an expansion of nuclear power; Mr. Obama is more skeptical of nuclear energy and attacks Mr. McCain's support for a storage facility at Yucca Mountain. Both men support a cap-and-trade regime to address climate change, but there are important differences between their approaches.
The sooner the sniping stops and the serious discussion starts, the better off the country will be -- and the best way to achieve that would be for the candidates to meet, one-on-one, as often as possible. Mr. McCain's proposal to hold weekly town hall meetings was -- as the Obama campaign said -- "appealing." That was more than three weeks ago. Since then, the Obama campaign has countered with the offer of a single town hall meeting, on nobody-will-be-watching July 4, and a second debate on foreign policy -- this in addition to the three traditional fall debates. Mr. Obama has written that "one of my favorite tasks of being a senator is hosting town hall meetings." He launched his campaign decrying "the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial." Now, he should seize the opportunity to practice the change he preaches.