Barbara Bush said the other day that the 2012 presidential race has been “the worst campaign I’ve ever seen in my life.”

I disagree. My vote would be for 1988, when her husband, George H.W. Bush, built a repulsive campaign against Michael Dukakis based on state prison furlough policy, obscure judicial rulings about reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the need for laws against burning the American flag.

Bush the Elder took the aristocratic view that games (like tennis, or politics) should be played to the death, but animosity should be suspended when the drinks cart arrives. He never understood why some people keep bringing up Willie Horton.

Among the three remaining serious candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are old hands at dirty campaigning. Mitt Romney has a bit of the old Bush attitude (except that the drinks cart is alcohol-free). Add in his experience in the darker corners of free-market capitalism, where you do what’s necessary to win, and Mrs. Bush may turn out to be right in the end.

Dukakis was knocked sideways by the Bush torrent of crap that poured over him during the 1988 campaign, and he never recovered. John Kerry was equally surprised in 2004, when the Republicans managed to turn his military service in Vietnam against him in the “swift boats” campaign.

What Lies Ahead

In the past couple of weeks, we have been given a couple of foretastes of what may lie ahead for 2012. First, there is the fuss over President Barack Obama’s failure to disassociate himself from or apologize for statements by the comedian Bill Maher, who has given $1 million to a super-PAC supporting Obama’s re-election. Second, there’s the ludicrous attempt to make an issue of Obama’s embrace (literally — there’s video), while at Harvard Law School, of a professor named Derrick Bell. The Bell story, with video, is the parting gift of Andrew Breitbart, who died of a heart attack March 1 at the age of 43 – – much too young even for a right-wing hit man.

Conservative critics compare Maher, who used vulgar language about Sarah Palin, with Rush Limbaugh, who is in hot water of his own for vulgar on-air comments about a young woman who testified before Congress in favor of Obama’s plan to require health insurers to cover birth control. Liberals pressured an apology out of Limbaugh. Why aren’t they demanding a similar grovel from Maher — or returning his money?

I wrote last week about the competitive sensitivity game that dominates our politics these days, in which all sides leap to take insincere offense at remarks by others and demand apologies which, by their very nature, are equally insincere. Maher actually defended Limbaugh, calling the campaign against him a “fatwa.” For his troubles, he was attacked by a Wall Street Journal columnist for using an Islamic term as a metaphor. Typical liberal hypocrite, was the columnist’s point.

You can parse the difference between Limbaugh and Maher if you want — one is an overt political pamphleteer and the other a comedian whose scorn is bipartisan, even if on average it tilts left. But the ideal solution would be if everyone just developed a thicker skin.

As for giving back Maher’s million dollars, under our ridiculous campaign finance laws it would probably be illegal for Obama to attempt to influence an “independent” super-PAC in this way. More important, political candidates surely cannot be held responsible for everything said by their campaign contributors. Do Gingrich and Santorum want to defend the views of everyone who has given them money?

Fundamental Beliefs

On the other hand, Obama’s own fundamental beliefs are a perfectly legitimate issue. Even after a term as president, they’re not clear (at least to me). But they’re clear to many in talk-radio land, based on his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright (his former pastor in Chicago) and Bill Ayers (a former authentic violent revolutionary, who called for blood and got it, now playing the more cuddly role of a harmless aging radical).

Those are characters left over from 2008. For 2012, meet Professor Bell. He seems to have been a genuine mentor of Obama’s, although Breitbart’s “gotcha” video of the embrace is hardly dispositive. Imagine how many people of varying views a politician hugs over the course of a career.

Bell, who died in October at age 80, was an eccentric and bitter man, as well as a distinguished legal scholar. He founded a school of thought called critical race theory, a cousin of critical legal studies, a worldview that roiled Harvard and other top law schools during the 1970s and 1980s but probably won’t last the ages. Nevertheless, to make him out to be radioactive and poisonous to the touch would implicate not just Barack Obama but also Harvard Law School (where Bell became the first black tenured professor — in 1971!), the University of Oregon School of Law (where he was dean) and the legal establishment generally, of which he was, however ambiguously, a part. (Ayers, similarly, was embraced by the Chicago establishment in a way that makes attacking Obama for mere acquaintanceship ridiculous.)

Someone like Santorum may see no troublesome contradiction here. Of course Bell was embraced by the Eastern, Ivy League, blah blah blah media establishment. The outrageous passages that can be plucked selectively and misinterpreted from his many serious books don’t contradict this: They prove it. That establishment is as dangerously left-wing and un-American as Bell was, and so is Obama.

Even Gingrich probably holds a more nuanced view of the American political landscape, and Romney may sense that a general attack on the establishment is going to be a tough case for him to make. But you never know. After all, George Bush the Elder, with four generations of Yale in his family, was able to make an issue of his rival’s degree from Harvard Law School.

Michael Kinsley

Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist.