MCCAIN RATIONALIZES HIS CAMPAIGN STYLE…. As part of last night’s forum on national service, John McCain was asked about the tone and direction of the presidential campaign. His response was arguably the most fascinating moment of the evening.

Questioned about the tone of the campaign, Sen. McCain insisted he was running an issues-based campaign and put the blame on his opponent for refusing to join him in town hall meetings.

“First of all this is a tough business,” the Arizona senator said. “Second of all, I think the tone of this whole campaign would’ve been very different if Sen. Obama had accepted my request for us to appear at town hall meetings all over America.”

David Broder recently made the same argument in one of his columns — attributing “the tone and direction” of the campaign to the lack of debates.

There’s a word to describe this argument, but it’s probably not appropriate for a family website.

To hear McCain tell it, the only way for the presidential campaign to be respectful and substantive is for McCain to get to know Obama better by sharing a stage and arguing with him. This is painfully absurd.

Whether McCain runs a relentlessly negative, substance-free campaign has nothing to do with his proposal for extra debates. If McCain wanted to be an honorable candidate, he could be an honorable candidate, whether his opponent is a Senate colleague or a total stranger. Building a rapport is not a prerequisite for honest campaigning — character, integrity, and respect for the political process are prerequisites for honest campaigning.

This is just pathetic excuse-making — McCain’s running an ugly and deceptive campaign, but that’s okay because he just hasn’t gotten to know Obama very well. Indeed, by this reasoning, it’s Obama’s fault McCain has been so despicable — if he’d only agreed to 15 town-hall debates like McCain wanted, McCain wouldn’t have to be so persistently repugnant.

Whether there are three debates or 300 is irrelevant. It’s not like McCain and Steve Schmidt got together one day and said, “Well, I wasn’t going to spend the fall lying pathologically and smearing Obama, but since there are only going to be three debates, we might as well.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.