As is appropriate and necessary, there’s currently much attention being focused on the patently false GOP-supported swift boat ad. But, there’s more to the nasty air wars raging across a handful of battleground states this political season. Spending on political commercials has gone through the roof, distortion reigns supreme and Bush has made negativity the norm.

Last month, the Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin reported that the campaigns are ignoring 60 percent of Americans who don’t live in the swing states. Out of 210 media markets nationwide, only 93 of them are airing any political commercials. But in Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa and Florida the airwaves are thick with ads, and voters are under heavy bombardment in 14 or 15 additional states.

According to Ken Goldstein, director of the Advertising Project, the campaigns are fixed laser-like on “maybe two, two and a half percent of the voters” who “are actually persuadable in this race.” But in the uncontested blue or red states (California, Texas, New York) where the outcome isn’t in doubt, a kind of political famine has deprived voters of a firsthand look at this year’s (nasty) give-and-take.

Bush is waging perhaps the most negative–and expensive–television assault on a challenger in modern times. Through mid-July, Bush had already spent $84 million on television advertising–most of it negative. His campaign, according to the Washington Post, is defined by “unprecedented negativity.” Seventy-five percent of his ads, or almost 50,000 commercials through May 31st were devoted to attacking John Kerry. (Kerry, by contrast, went negative in only 27 percent of his ads during the same period.) In 30-second bombshells saturating the airwaves in swing states, Bush routinely misleads voters by charging that Kerry supported repealing wiretaps on terrorists; proposed a $900 billion tax hike on the middle-class; advocated a fifty-cent gas tax increase; opposed weapons systems that would have helped America fight terrorists, and failed to attend crucial Senate Intelligence Committee hearings.

The drumbeat of distortions is so nasty that even the watchdogs get tired of cleaning up so many White House smears. In April,, which is sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, said wearily of Bush’s ad attacking Kerry’s voting record on military hardware: “We’ve de-bunked these half-truths before but the Bush campaign persists.”

Bush’s surrogates–or as Maureen Dowd calls them, “Third-Party political assassins”–have also been busy boys. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, well-funded by big GOP donors, is running an ad charging that one of Kerry’s Bronze Stars for bravery and two of his three purple hearts were the result of Kerry fabricating events. Sen. John McCain urged Bush to denounce the smear. But Bush and his cronies have refused to condemn the patently false ad. (On Friday, the Swift Boat attackers announced that they were unrolling another anti-Kerry TV ad–this one sliming his antiwar activity.)

Meanwhile, Kerry’s campaign is finally responding. Last week, it filed a complaint against the group with the federal elections commission. But by the time the complaint was filed, more than half the country has already heard about or seen the Swift Boat ad, according to the Annenberg Center (Click here to read David Corn’sNation weblog for more on this deceitful ad.)

What’s clear is that this incumbent, wartime president and his strategists will use dirty tricks and character assassination to win. “This is the bitterest, most unsavory campaign in the nation’s history,” McCain said this week. “And it’s only going to get worse.”

The latest poll numbers have only fueled Bush’s desperation. In key battleground states, most polls suggest the President is hurting. (USA Today‘s latest numbers show Kerry with a 10 percentage point advantage in the key swing state of Ohio. ) The White House has decided that the way to stop the bleeding is to attack Kerry as a flip-flopper and a liberal. (And to use surrogates to do some of their dirty work.) That means jettisoning the campaign’s pledge to use August to roll out a second-term agenda. (Remember Karl Rove telling the New York Times, “We need, as we go into the convention, to put more of an emphasis on our agenda. This gives us a chance to tell people what he wants to do over the next four years.”) Instead, Rove & Co have gone negative, big-time–revealing Bush as the real flip-flopper in this campaign.

The current campaign system is broken in many ways. When it comes to the air war, these negative ads do little but bestow big benefits on large media companies, advertising agencies and political consultants. According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group which tracks political advertising, candidates in 2002 at the federal, state and local levels spent a combined one billion dollars on political commercials (a four-fold increase from 1982). And the result? The public discourse was debased (remember Saxby Chambliss, who ran the ads that featured consecutive photos of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Democrat Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam?), and media operatives and companies made out like bandits.

To try to address this spiraling madness, Senators McCain, Feingold and Durbin are introducing the “ Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act.” The bill is a modest reform. It recognizes that the airwaves are a public trust; it will cut the cost of political communication, will open up new room for fresh ideas, and even perhaps elevate the level of discourse. Let’s take a sensible step to fix a system that, as our president has shown in dramatic and mean-spirited ways, is completely dysfunctional.