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The Best Presidential Campaign Ever?

Not by a long shot.

11:00 PM, Nov 2, 2008 • By FRED BARNES
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Was the 2008 presidential campaign the greatest ever? The conventional wisdom in the political community and the media seems to be congealing around that idea. David Broder, the political columnist of the Washington Post, thinks the 2008 race was best he's ever covered. Was it really that good? I don't think so. In important ways, this year's campaign was one of the worst.

Not that the candidates weren't top-flight. Barack Obama and John McCain are both excellent candidates, though for different reasons. Obama put together one of the most impressive campaign operations of all time. And for a rookie candidate to make so few mistakes (and no major ones)--that's quite amazing. For his part, McCain is simply a man of character and courage and a national hero.

Just about everyone agrees that the Obama-Hillary Clinton battle for the Democratic nomination was a gripping affair and a great show. The only primary campaign that rivals it, in my view, was the 1976 battle between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

And there was one special highlight of this year's race: the selection by McCain of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. From her first public appearance with McCain, Palin was a star. Only one other Republican can match her stage presence, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Since he's foreign-born, he can't serve as president. She can.

But the positive parts of the campaign pale compared with the negative ones. Start with the three presidential debates. Broder called them "lackluster" but that's putting it mildly. They were narrowly focused on a few economic and foreign policy issues, and boring besides. We learned practically nothing new or interesting about Obama and McCain as a result.

The only official debate worth watching was the vice presidential one between Joe Biden--or "Joe the Biden," as McCain now calls him--and Palin. Biden made more mistakes, including several whoppers, than any candidate has ever made in a presidential or vice presidential debate. Palin made only a few small ones. Yet many commentators said Biden won on points. Biden, of course, committed so many gaffes on the stump that the Obama later had to muzzle him and keep him away from the press.

The best debate was not really a debate. It consisted of separate, hour-long appearances, Obama first, McCain immediately afterwards, with Rick Warren at Warren's church in California in August. Warren asked thought-provoking, personal questions about such things as the existence of evil, the wisest person each candidate knows and listens to, and when life begins. I'm for having Warren be the questioner in all the debates in 2012.

Then there was the breathtaking media bias--liberal bias--in favor of Obama and against McCain. The media never tried to answer the most basic question about Obama: Is he who he says he is? Worse still was the charge that McCain's campaign was mean and negative and occasionally racist in its attacks--and Obama's wasn't anything like that.

The press broke new ground by going about Palin's specific religious beliefs and practices as if she'd committed wrongful acts or at least thought crimes. Did she speak in tongues? What did she pray for? Did she think the Iraq war was God's will? No questions were asked of Obama or Biden about their religious beliefs.

However, I can't blame the press for the event that intervened in mid-September and may have determined the outcome of the presidential race--the financial meltdown. It was entirely beyond the control of Obama or McCain. Neither of them caused it or offered a serious solution for it. McCain was involved briefly when the bailout was voted on. Obama stayed on the sidelines.

Yet when the crisis began, McCain was 2,3,4, or 5 points ahead of Obama, depending on the poll. Within weeks, he was 4,5,6, or 7 points behind.

This is proof that politics is unfair. But politics, like life, has always been unfair. The point to consider is whether a presidential race so affected, even decided, by an outside event should be considered great. Answer: It shouldn't.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.