I struggle with this question. If the rules are that you don't do certain things in a war, and the other side is doing them anyway and you are enduring huge losses, do you continue to follow the established rules, which are there for good reason, or do you match dirty tactic with dirty tactic? All's fair in love, war, and politics? Certainly there are lines we shouldn't cross even if the other side does them. Torture comes to mind.
What if the other side breaks the established (if unwritten) rules in a political contest, what should you do? I used to think the answer was to hold your head high and do the right thing, to not go into the gutter with the other side. That the system would work, truth would prevail and all of that. But now I wonder if that's correct. Perhaps a mutually assured destruction strategy would be better. Make it absolutely clear that any tactic will not only be matched, it will be exceeded. Make the response so costly that the other side won't even consider the option. The problem, of course, is this is not a credible threat and short of finding a way to make it credible, which involves the unpleasant task of wallowing in the mud with the other side, I'm not sure what the answer is:
McCain, Obama, and the Inherent Advantage of Caring More About Ends Than Means, by Robert Reich: We’ve been here before: The Republican attack machine at full throttle, spewing lies in best-selling books, on Fox News, on talk radio. The mainstream media reporting on the controversy, thereby giving it more air time and squeezing out the Democrats’ affirmative message. Followed by accusations by Democrats that Republicans are playing unfairly. Responded to by smiling shrugs and winks from Republicans, who say Democrats can’t take the heat or can’t enjoy a joke or are out of touch with average Americans who are concerned about whatever it is the Republicans are lying about. This ignites a furious debate among Democrats about how negative they should go against the Republican. “If we use their tactics, we’ll lose the moral high ground,” say the Democratic doves. “If we don’t, we’ll lose the war,” say the Democratic hawks. The debate is never fully resolved. The Democrats sort of fight back but don’t have the heart to do to Republicans what Republicans do to them. And so it goes.
The underlying problem is that Democrats care about means as well as ends, while Republicans care almost exclusively about ends and will use any means to get there. The paradox lies deeper. For most Democrats, the means are part of the ends. We want an electoral process that eschews the lying and cheating we’ve witnessed since Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks. If we use their tactics, we undermine our own goal, violating one of the very things that distinguishes us from them. Yet if we don’t stoop to their level, how can we prevail in a system that allows – even rewards – such lying and cheating? ...
Democrats also care about the rule of law – adherence to legal norms, rules, and precedents – as an end in itself. Republican administrations view the law as a potential obstacle to achieving particular ends. Anyone trying to chronicle the Bushie’s disregard for the rule of law is quickly overwhelmed with examples, such as violating civil service laws to fill up the executive branch with political hacks; riding roughshod over constitutional laws in firing federal prosecutors; wiretapping Americans in clear violation of law; holding prisoners of war without charge, in violation of international law; using torture. Democrats, once in power, regard laws as serious constraints on that power. (When I was secretary of labor, the department’s lawyers would instruct me about what I could not do because I was unauthorized to do it, rather than how I might reinterpret or bend the laws in order that I could. The lawyers who work in the Bush administration do the opposite.)
Those who are willing to do anything to achieve their ends will always have a tactical advantage over those who regard the means as ends in themselves. The question posed in this election, and, one hopes, by an Obama administration, is whether the moral authority generated by the latter position is itself enough to overcome these odds.