It is, first, a test of George W. Bush.
Bush claims that his highest priority is uniting the country in the war against terrorism. A president who would be a uniter and not a divider knows that cheap-shot politics can only further rend our nation and weaken his own ability to lead.
This is also a test for the media.
We see here a fascinating and ugly development in the politics of annihilation. A supposedly outside group raises money from close Bush supporters, staffs itself with political operatives close to Bush and the Republicans, and then puts up several hundred thousand dollars worth of television ads. This is, as one operative with years of experience in Republican campaigns put it, "a professional hit." Suddenly, questions about Kerry's service that were asked and answered months ago become big news again.
This is also a test of John McCain.
When he ran against Bush four years ago, McCain was smeared mercilessly. When McCain protested to Bush about the attacks at one of their debates during the 2000 primaries, Bush brushed him off. "John," Bush said, "it's politics."
McCain snapped back, "George, everything isn't politics."
McCain was right, and when he returns to the United States from a trip to Europe this week, he should stand up for that principle by suspending his campaigning for Bush's reelection until the smears against Kerry's Vietnam record stop. More than anyone, McCain is the person to make the case that slaughterhouse politics is particularly ill-suited to this moment in our history.