Which of these descriptions is correct?
No. 1: The campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain is off to a great start. It is refreshing to see candidates keep their promises to run positive, substantive races.
No. 2: The campaign is already a distressing example of negative-politics-as-usual. Each day brings withering attacks and counterattacks as both candidates break their promises to wage a different kind of contest.
If you picked No. 2, you got it. You're probably also disgusted with the squabbling between two men who crossed their hearts and pledged to be different.
They've been different in only one way: They started attacking early and show no signs of letting up. By November, America could be sick of them.
Part of the turn-off is that the presidential campaign is already the longest in history. After a year of run-up to the primaries, five months of actual voting was exhilarating at times, but ultimately exhausting for candidates and voters.
We needed a break, and I thought we would get it. After Obama won his epic battle over Hillary Clinton, the time was right for a lull before the sprint to the conventions and the general election. Instead, the tone between Obama and McCain instantly turned rancid and has stayed that way.
Even their daily campaign e-mails are loaded with barbs. "McCain: Out of touch on trade," was the headline on one Obama release. "A timeline of reversal" was how McCain began one on Obama.
Throw in the attacks by the national parties and advocacy groups and the mud bath is nonstop.
Call me na´ve, but I believed we could get a different kind of campaign because it seemed in the candidates' interests, as well as their natures.
Both made much of their plans to appeal to independents and expand the number of toss-up states. Because neither was central to the partisan battles that have gridlocked Washington, the stage appeared set for a contest where the big issues would take precedence.
The issues are there, but they are overshadowed by the demoralizing and often personal tone. If history is any guide, it's a screech many voters will deal with by tuning out everything the candidates say.
Of the two, Obama is the greater disappointment. He railed against our divides, racial and otherwise, and pledged to be a uniter. Those claims made him an attractive alternative to Clinton, who, despite the historic nature of her run, came off as more a bridge to the past than the future.
But since he defeated Clinton, Obama seems to have lost interest in being different. His explanation for his decision to drop out of the public finance system was laughably disingenuous and suggests a readiness to embrace the situational ethics that defined the last two decades.
His partisan attacks on McCain aim to rally the Democratic base instead of appealing to those outside the party, a conclusion reinforced by the hand-me-down members of past Dem administrations surrounding him now. The only fresh faces are the teenagers swooning at his rallies.
McCain, too, has been relentless in his attacks, although they are generally grounded in genuine policy differences. His criticism of Obama's remarks that law enforcement is key to fighting terrorism was a legitimate point, even if it was wrapped in a mud ball.
Most important, McCain has proposed the one idea that could alter the tone of the race. His invitation for Obama to join him at 10 town-hall meetings, in addition to three debates, could force them to address voter concerns without personal barbs. Having them on the same stage would end the long-distance sniping and give ordinary Americans a reason to listen to them.
Fearing the idea would benefit McCain, Obama has said yes to only one town-hall appearance. He ought to think again, for his sake and ours.