Economists are not generally known for their lyrical phrasing. But the other day, one told me something about the election that has stuck with me: He cautioned against succumbing to the "symmetry of sin."
This unexpected snippet of political poetry, from a Democrat advising Barack Obama, was prompted by my expressed desire to hold both campaigns accountable for their lapses from good policy and honest argument. At which point my eloquent economist invoked the lure of false symmetry.
He was peddling a self-interested, but important, point: All campaigns fall short, but some fall far shorter than others. And it is a phony evenhandedness, comfortable for journalists but ultimately misleading, that equates these failures without measuring the grossness of their deviation from the standard of decency.
In the 2008 race, and especially in the past few weeks, the imbalance has become unnervingly stark. Ideological differences aside, John McCain's campaign has been more dishonest, more unfair, more -- to use a word that resonates with McCain -- dishonorable than Barack Obama's.
Both candidates are guilty of playing trivial pursuit in a serious season, campaigning from gotcha to gotcha. Obama also has eagerly taken every cheap shot -- McCain wants to stay in Iraq for 100 years, doesn't get the economy, can't count his own houses. Neither candidate is running the honest, confront-the-hard-questions campaign he promised.
McCain's transgressions, though, are of a different magnitude. His whoppers are bigger; there are more of them. He -- the easy out would be to say "his campaign" -- has been misleading, and at times has outright lied, about his opponent. He has misrepresented -- that's the charitable verb -- his vice presidential nominee's record. Called on these fouls, he has denied and repeated them.
The most outrageous of McCain's distortions involve Obama on taxes. He asserts that Obama's new taxes could "break your family budget," and that an Obama presidency would inflict "painful tax increases on working American families." Hardly. Obama would lower taxes for most households, and lower them more than McCain would. The only "painful tax increases on working American families" would be on working families making more than $250,000.
Likewise, the McCain campaign has its story about Sarah Palin, and it's sticking with it -- facts be damned. She said "thanks but no thanks" to that "Bridge to Nowhere," except that she didn't: She backed the bridge until it was unpopular, then scooped up the money and used it for other projects. More than a year after McCain began railing against the bridge, Palin, then a gubernatorial candidate, said the state should build it "now -- while our congressional delegation is in a strong position to assist."
Palin sold the gubernatorial jet, on eBay and for a profit -- except that she didn't. She didn't take earmarks as governor -- except for the $256 million she sought last year, and the $197 million wish list for 2008.
Every hard-fought campaign is in some sense a struggle between the id of political consultants driving for a victory and the superego of policy types who worry about having to govern with the consequences of campaign rhetoric. Every campaign calls on the candidate to calibrate, at some point, how far he is willing to go in pursuit of the prize.
No candidate has felt this tension so keenly, or written about it as movingly, as McCain. In his memoir "Worth the Fighting For," McCain describes the sickening sensation of renouncing his views about the Confederate flag to curry favor with South Carolina voters in 2000 -- "reading it as if I were making a hostage statement."
He wrote that his "theatrics" were designed to "telegraph reporters that . . . political imperatives required a little evasiveness on my part. I wanted them to think me still an honest man, who simply had to cut a corner a little here and there so that I could go on to be an honest president."
Sitting on the couch with the women of "The View" last week, McCain offered a litany of excuses for his conduct this time around: Obama's ads are hard-hitting, too. The tone wouldn't be so negative if Obama had agreed to more debates. McCain's own lipstick comment was different because he was referring to health care.
You had to wonder: Are there any corners left for McCain? Is there any reason to trust that a man running this campaign would go on to be an honest president?