UNIQUELY SLEAZY…. I’ve suggested more than once that the McCain/Palin campaign is the most dishonest of the last few decades. Today, Josh Marshall goes further, calling the Republican campaign the sleaziest of the last 35 years.

Either because of age or recent immersion in politics, a lot of readers have asked, is it really usually this bad? Do they all get this sleazy? As sleazy as McCain?

The simple answer, I think, is, No. They don’t. I don’t think there’s any question that McCain’s is the dirtiest and most dishonest campaign, certainly in the last 35 years and possibly going much further back into the early 20th century.

You may say, wait, Willie Horton? The Swift-boat smears? What about those?

But here’s the key point, one that is getting too little attention. President Bush’s father didn’t run the Willie Horton ad. And this President Bush, however much they may have been funded by his supporters and run with Karl Rove’s tacit approval, didn’t run the Swift Boat ads. These were run by independent groups. Just how ‘independent’ we think they really are is a decent question. But even the sleaziest campaigns usually draw the line at the kind of sleaze they are wiling to run themselves under their own name.

In this case, though, the kind of toxic sludge usually run by one-off independent groups in very limited ad buys makes up virtually all of McCain’s presence on TV.

Even setting aside this distinction, McCain’s campaign has charted new territory in deliberate lying and appeals to racism and xenophobia.

Josh’s point about independent groups getting their hands dirty so the candidates don’t have to is important, but I’d add that one of the factors that amplifies the sleazy nature of the McCain campaign is its willingness to jump from one detestable attack to another.

With some of the more recent cycles, the Republican Machine would settle on a personal attack early on, and ride the wave. Bill Clinton, they said, was a “liberal” of “weak character.” John Kerry, they said, was an “elitist” flip-flopper. The GOP attack dogs picked these labels in advance, and repeated them ad nauseum, literally every day for six months.

The attacks from McCain have been more haphazard. Obama’s a rookie. That didn’t work? OK, he’s a “celebrity.” That didn’t work? How about, he’s a partisan Democrat who won’t stand up to his party. Nothing? All right, he’s insufficiently supportive of the troops. Or he’s a pervert who wants to bring sex-ed to kindergarteners. Or a terrorist-sympathizer. Or he’s a socialist. All the while, the subtext of McCain/Palin rhetoric vacillated between Obama’s race, patriotism, and/or being “foreign,” but it’s never come together in a coherent way.

I labeled all of this “pinata politics” back in August, hoping to capture McCain’s habit of appearing blind-folded, swinging a bat wildly in every direction. The effect, though, has been the same — by struggling to come up with a consistent line of criticism, and ratcheting up the hate and fear whenever one line of attack failed to move the needle, McCain’s position as the sleaziest candidate in a generation is secure.

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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.