It's a Three-Man Race: Obama vs The Two McCains

"How honest are we if we tell the truth most of the time & stay silent only when telling the truth might get us fired or earn us a broken nose? We need moral courage to be honest all the time."

Those words were written by John McCain in his 2004 book Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life.

I couldn't agree with them more. I just wish John McCain did. Not the John McCain who wrote them in 2004; the John McCain running for president in 2008. There's a big difference.

When Barack Obama finally secured the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton, we all thought it was down to a two-man field. Obama vs. McCain. But it's turned out to be a three-man race: Obama vs the Old, Honorable McCain and his political doppelganger the New, Unprincipled McCain.

After a month dominated by the new-but-definitely-not-improved McCain, it was actually a bit of a shock to see the John McCain so many of us fell in love with in 2000 make a rare appearance at
the other night. Engaging, easy-going, able to connect his incredible life story to his view of the world. Hearing him tell the story of how he and Cindy came to adopt their youngest daughter Bridget, you could almost forget this was the same man who for much of the summer has been running a disgraceful, dishonorable campaign.

And even this rare appearance by the old McCain was tainted a bit by the "cone of silence" dust-up (particularly his campaign's ridiculous use of the former-POWs-never-lie defense), and the question of whether McCain lifted his moving "cross in the dirt story" from Solzhenitsyn.

Sightings of the old McCain are becoming more and infrequent. He was there at the beginning of the race, when he pledged to run a "respectful campaign" -- and when his campaign manager, Rick Davis, penned a memo vowing, "Throughout the primary election we saw John McCain reject the type of politics that degrade our civics, and this will not change as he prepares to run head-to-head against the Democratic nominee."

But it did change. And so did those steering McCain's campaign. In July, Davis was replaced with Steve Schmidt, a protégé of Karl Rove. Schmidt's nickname is "the bullet," and it's not just because of his bald head -- he practices the kind of politics that shoots for the head. You bring in guys like Steve Schmidt for a reason. And McCain has gotten exactly what he's paying for -- what Joe Klein (a great admirer of the old McCain) calls the "quadrennial Republican scum festival that begins in August of every presidential election year."

So what acts are on the Scum Festival lineup this year? Ads comparing Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, the claim that Obama "would rather lose a war that we are winning than lose an election," and the claim that Obama hasn't "put his country first."

As Klein asks: "We've got two wars, an energy crisis, an economy teetering on the edge of real serious trouble -- and this is the campaign John McCain wants to run?"

Apparently. And those were just the opening acts on the Schmidt-apalooza scum-fest. Witness McCain's response to the Swiftboat-inspired The Obama Nation. A few years ago it would have been almost impossible to imagine John McCain being the sort who would "stay silent" about something as sleazy, sordid and dishonorable as Jerome Corsi's pack of lies.

In fact, McCain did worse than stay silent; he laughed it off as a big joke, suggesting you "gotta keep your sense of humor." (HuffPost's Seth Colter Walls has more on McCain's increasing use of the "it was only a joke" excuse.) After it was pointed out that this was, perhaps, a less than honorable response, McCain sent out his spokeswoman to clarify that her boss had misheard the question.

Sure he did.

Well here's another question (and I'll type as clearly as I can so McCain doesn't misread it): what would the John McCain of 2000 -- a man who was viciously smeared by the same gang now doing his bidding -- think about the John McCain of today? Back then, John McCain didn't think libelous smears were such knee-slappers.

That McCain would want the media to stop pretending that the old McCain is still around and tell the American people the truth: that the John McCain of 2008 is willing to countenance dishonorable slurs, lies, smears and slanders to make it to the Oval Office.