I think if everyone successfully avoided the ad hominem fallacy, then we could truly learn something when Uncle Joe, the born-again Christian, and Uncle Charlie, the village atheist, got together around Thanksgiving dinner. Or when Uncle Bill, the Rush Limbaugh admirer, and Uncle Bob, the who has seen every Michael Moore movie 10 times, get together.
Ad hominem is the shift of attention from issues to people. It is difficult to assess the merits of Clinton's economic policies, it is far easier to talk about cigars, interns, and finger-wagging. It's also easy to portray Bush as stupid and Clinton as slick, than it is to actually address the issues involved in their administrations.
There is a necessary aspect of political discouse that does involve evaluating not merely the positions of the candidates but their fitness to serve. I have problems with the Palin selection from that standpoint, but I don't think that's a subject that can be fruitfully pursed at this point. We can talk about Obama's association with Ayers and Wright, McCain's association with Keating, and Palin's association with the Alaskan Independence Party unit we are blue in the face. Nothing will be achieved.
I try to keep everything personal off this blog. I made an exception mentioning my aging and now deceased parents in the context of a discussion of Social Security and Medicare, and regret it now, for obvious reasons. By the same token, I really don't care how old Steve Hays is, or who he lives with, or whatever else. The debate should be about issues not people. As for diagnosing intellectual dishonesty, as Obama said in another context, that's above my pay grade. It's enough to show someone is mistaken, if you can. Showing that they are somehow dishonest requires abilities beyond the capacities of mere mortals. At least that's how I see it.
How do we improve the tone? We avoid ad hominem arguments. I have linked to a Wikipedia treatment of the ad hominem fallacy.