Last Monday at a trade show for people who are part of the Florida tourist industry, I asked the 750 assembled for lunch how many were happy with the tone of modern politics? Not a hand was raised.
Since my Democratic friend Bob Beckel and I wrote our book “Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That Is Destroying America,” among the public, I have found a growing discontent about a campaign that had promised to be different.
Both John McCain and Barack Obama said they wanted to put to rest the divisive and incendiary politics of the past, but in their present campaigns both have now succumbed to politics as usual. How did this happen when the public consistently says it is sick of it and hates the tearing down of the other candidate rather than the building up of the country?
In this campaign, part of the answer has to do with the massive media buildup of Mr. Obama, which has led the McCain campaign to do commercials mocking his “deity.” It has been the only way Mr. McCain thought he could bring Mr. Obama down to earth.
But a part of the reason also has to do with the veteran handlers, special-interest groups, fund-raisers and other unworthies who have made a lot of money and gained considerable power over the years with their slash-and-burn tactics. Candidates fear losing more than anything else and when confronted with the possibility of political death, they will cling to any lifeline thrown in their direction. If destroying one’s opponent has worked before, maybe it will work again - despite the public’s distaste.
Mr. McCain signaled that maybe this time things would be different when he proposed that he and Mr. Obama participate in a series of meetings without a media panel. I called this “An American Conversation.” I had hoped it could be modeled on the fascinating Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, during which the Senate candidates eloquently battled over the big issues of their day. Lincoln and Douglas toured seven Illinois towns and drew thousands to their debates. The Lincoln-Douglas debates remain one of the great models for civil discourse in the less-than-stellar history of American politics.
The Obama campaign at first indicated it might agree to the meetings, but someone decided such gatherings might put Mr. Obama at a disadvantage, which is hard to imagine given his superior verbal firepower and quick mind. Maybe a consultant, fearful of losing control of the candidate, nixed it. We’ll have to wait for the history of this campaign to be written to find out.
Mr. Beckel has a suggestion he thinks might yet redeem the time. He thinks that 10 days to two weeks before the campaign ends one of the candidates should announce he is tired of the negativity and until Election Day will refuse to utter a negative word about his opponent, focusing instead on the positive aspects of his own campaign. Mr. Beckel thinks this would sway the large independent vote in the direction of whichever candidate does it and means it, thereby handing him the election.
It worked for Jim Webb. In 2006, Mr. Webb was running against incumbent Sen. George Allen, and the race was close. In the closing weeks of the campaign, Mr. Webb emphasized positive themes while Mr. Allen attacked Mr. Webb for racy passages in the novels he had written. Mr. Webb narrowly won. Mr. Beckel thinks the positive commercials sealed the deal, especially with independent voters.
Mr. Beckel also believes - and I agree - that Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain should tell the Commission on Presidential Debates that they are rejecting the tired format of journalists questioning them and they should come up with their own format, modeled after Lincoln-Douglas. The interest level would be sky-high and be reflected in the TV ratings.
Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain could change politics for a generation if they did this, but if they continue along their current path of mutual destruction, there will be no common ground, only scorched earth that will enhance the bitterness and cynicism most people already have toward politics and politicians.
Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.