In the American governing process the Vice President has two responsibilities. He presides over the Senate, casting a tie-breaking vote if needed, and he awaits the President's demise or incapacitation. Dull stuff for the most part.
In a presidential campaign, however, the vice presidential nominee plays a far more active and central role. He plays "bad cop" while the presidential nominee remains pristine above the fray. When played well (Nixon for Eisenhower, Agnew for Nixon, Cheney for Bush) it can affect the outcome, at least marginally. When played badly (Lieberman for Gore or Quayle for Bush in 1992), it can hurt marginally. Indeed, if Senator Lieberman were nearly as aggressive in 2000 as he has been supporting Senator McCain and the Iraq misadventure, the outcome of the election may well have been different.
Starting in 2000, the dawn of the Rove era, some of this "attack dog" function has been assumed by outside entities, most notably by 527 organizations such as the misnamed "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth." While there have been some groups masquerading as "non partisan" such as the inaccurate and inept "Veterans for Freedom", the role of outside groups have, so far, been relatively minor. Instead we have seen a new phenomenon, the Presidential candidate as the alpha attack dog.
In a breathtaking series of inaccurate and mud slinging television ads, all featuring Senator McCain, he has accused Senator Obama of being willing to lose in Iraq to win the election, a charge just short of treason, claimed that Senator Obama is personally responsible for high gas prices, and accused Senator Obama of "blowing off" the troops in Afghanistan in order to play basketball -- a contention officially debunked by the Pentagon. And he has condemned Senator Obama for not visiting troops at Landstuhl Army Hospital, Germany, knowing full well that this was done to not do what President Bush has so often done, use the troops for a political backdrop. All these ads have been shown to be inaccurate, false or skewed. Now another ad has appeared charging Senator Obama with the crime of celebrity and being able to give a coherent and inspiring speech, something that neither President Bush nor Senator McCain have shown a capacity to accomplish. This ad also contains the first signs of subliminal racist overtones.
In this nasty and negative strategy, Senator McCain has come across as a cranky old man, petty and petulant. He appears close to throwing a temper tantrum to get noticed by the media he once called his "base" but now sees as favoring Senator Obama. He seems angry that he must deal on an equal basis with someone younger, smarter and cooler. It is clear from the polls that McCain cannot compete on domestic issues so long as he appears to be an apologist for President Bush's economic malfeasance. And internationally it is clear that events are moving Senator Obama's way on an Iraqi time table, direct talks with Iran, and the recognition that the fight against terrorism is centered in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not Iraq. So Senator McCain is reduced to touting his support for the surge even to the point of making the false claim that the Suni Awakening, which began six months before the bulk of the surge troops arrived, was caused by the surge. Given this, it is not surprising that Senator McCain has taken charge of throwing mud -- and worse -- against the wall to see what sticks.
It seems that Senator McCain is willing to lose his civility and compromise his integrity rather than lose an election.
I do not know who the vice presidential nominees will be but I am sure that, given the campaign so far, Senator Obama will not have the capacity to be an attack dog high on his list of selection criteria. Perhaps neither shall Senator McCain. That role is already taken.