When I opened the newspaper this morning, I had a distinct sinking feeling. The presidential campaign was about to descend into more lies, hypocrisy, and deception even amid the economic tailspin and people's rising anxiety. Is this approach what we need over the next 28 days, and what can we hope for? Every four years during a presidential race, at this very time, we are encouraged to guess what will be the "October Surprise." This year, some onlookers have suggested we already know: the Wall Street crisis. No doubt, the economic crisis took the country by storm and is changing the dynamics of the presidential race. John McCain, who was once even with Obama in national polls, now trails Obama nationally and in major battleground states.
But, sadly, the dynamic that is most shaping this race is not the economic crisis, but the increasing intensity of lies, hypocrisy, and deception that rule the day. When this campaign started, many people, including myself, thought it was a golden opportunity for a real debate between competing visions for the nation's future. Remember that? Here were two men of honor, both remarkable in their own right, both passionate and eloquent defenders for what they value, both clearly patriots, who would engage each other and us.
I always thought these debates would be energetic, tough-minded, and highly-spirited; this is no time for Kumbayah and empty niceties. But I was wrong. Instead, it appears that we are about to witness a scorched-earth approach to campaign politics. We are told that the debate will now descend into attacks on Obama's associations from decades ago, McCain's Keating Five involvement, and whatever else can be dug up. More negative ads that seek to strike fear into people will bombard us. Each day I go online and to newspapers and see another campaign ad declared untruthful, inaccurate, or deceptive.
I've worked on campaigns (over 20) and understand that they are tough business. And I know that campaigns are about winning. There are real consequences at stake. But I cringe as I sit here and think about watching tonight's debate. Will it be more of the same trash talk? Will they blatantly distort one another's records? Will they help prepare us for the tough work that stands before the nation?
Here are just some examples of what I mean:
Will they squarely address what it might take to get the nation out of this economic mess? This isn't simply about positioning a single policy proposal, as if this problem can be fixed with a magic wand, but requires a larger and longer discussion.
How will their ideas actually affect people living in small and large towns in, for instance, Pennsylvania and Ohio that I visited recently? I don't want to hear the litany of proposals they usually offer, but a real sense of what can be done in these towns and what, if any, role the federal government can realistically play?
What's their vision for America in a world in which relationships, issues, and nations have been turned on their heads?
What does it mean for individuals Americans to re-engage with each other and in public life to rebuild relationships and address common concerns (and please don't reel off a new "program" that will involve a relatively few people).
Of course, my biggest hope would be for a genuine October Surprise. Imagine this: one or both of the candidates taking their place on stage at tonight's debate and declaring that their job is only to outline a clear vision for how America can move forward and what role we all can play -- without any lies, hypocrisy, or deceptions. I know both have tried this approach, to varying degrees. But now we need it more than ever. This is an October surprise I would welcome.