On the morning after Tuesday's general election, my first impulse will be to take a long, hot shower, so nasty has this year's campaigning been.
In fact, I'm willing to wager that there will be a lot of attempts to come clean following Election Day, since I think just about everyone -- the candidates especially -- has been defiled in some way by this drearily sad election season.
The voters, most of all, must feel violated. As evidenced by their advertising, too many candidates clearly look down on the electorate as intellectually inferior -- cattle that can be manipulated by shallow rhetoric and empty promises.
Candidates have been particularly ruthless in picking up on voters' deep-seated anger and dissatisfaction. They have selfishly mined the electorate's mood like a vein of gold. All that may be left when this is over is a scarred, useless landscape.
In Howard County, we have our own example of the scorched-earth politics of '94. The battle for county executive between Republican Charles I. Ecker and Democrat Susan B. Gray mirrors so many of the nastier campaigns that have been waged nationwide.
There is blame to go around on both sides.
The Ecker forces argue that they have merely responded to the inaccuracies and attacks coming from the opposing camp. The incumbent, in fact, has struggled to stay above the fray, while trying to rebut Ms. Gray on key issues.
But when Ecker campaign workers get involved in photographing Gray billboards to prove that her workers failed to include an "authority line" on the signs identifying who paid for them, they are also helping to fuel some of the ugliness that is the hallmark of this election.
Some will argue that these kinds of activities have always been part of campaigning in America. But the degree to which these things are occurring seems to be consistent with a general decline in decorum in society.
L Winning has become more important than integrity or honesty.
When this campaign began, I lamented the fact that Mr. Ecker was promising not to go on the attack against Ms. Gray, even though she was clearly showing no hesitation to attack him. In retrospect, Mr. Ecker was more insightful than I.
The efforts by some of his supporters -- arguably defensive in nature -- have added to the pettiness of this election season.
I have been inundated with angry telephone calls and ugly letters decrying my constant criticism of Ms. Gray and the tactics she has used. I have had her supporters plead with me to stop being so harsh.
One of the arguments used, although not by the candidate herself, is that Ms. Gray realizes that, if elected, she will not be able to accomplish all that she is promising to do.
If that is true, what does the future hold for Howard countians under a Gray administration?
Few current elected officials support her ideas. She has offended most of them with charges that they have sold themselves to developers in exchange for campaign donations. She has attacked the business community relentlessly.
The reason that Ecker workers photographed her campaign signs is that she attempted to launch a criminal investigation of her own against a group of prominent county organizations whose advertisements on cable television were critical of her and failed to include the required authority line. Those organizations included the county Farm Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters, the county National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Columbia Association.
As county executive, would she be able to work with these vital groups?
Her most consistent allies have been disgruntled residents who are upset about growth in the county. Ms. Gray has courted their backing by offering free legal service in their fights against various development projects. But she has produced few concrete results on their behalf.
How will they feel when she is unable to fulfill her promises as county executive?
And will that mean that four years from now, the next campaign will be nastier than this one? I'm not sure we can handle that.
If we follow this trend, we leave no room to progress. Compromise becomes impossible. Dialogue is reduced to shouting.
The result is that we all end up diminished by the experience.
Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.