Last year, when I (like everybody else) wrote off John McCain as a presidential candidate, the conclusion I drew was that he'd tried to run a campaign that, in style and substance, was a pale imitation of George W. Bush. It was satisfying, I though at the time, to see this go unrewarded even among the Republican primary electorate. Of course, I was wrong to write off McCain prematurely, and in fact his reversal of fortune seemed to coincide with a new emphasis on the parts of his record that deviated from Bush and current Republican orthodoxy. Even Republicans didn't want much more of Bush. (A fascinating question would be whether, in the absence of the 22nd Amendment, Bush could be renominated.) Between that relative distance and the fact that other candidates were, for one reason or another, even more objectionable, McCain outlasted his rivals and won the nomination.
But he's generally considered a decided underdog in the fall campaign against Barack Obama--betting markets give Obama a bit less than a 65 percent chance, and the excellent fivethirtyeight.com has him at closer to 68 percent as of this afternoon. The conventional wisdom on the race is that it's essentially Obama's to lose; if he can convince a majority that he's credible, he wins regardless of anything positive McCain might do. I think this is probably correct.
In an effort to change the dynamic, though, McCain has turned to his old tormentors--the people who ran Bush's campaigns in 2000 and 2004. And the lies and innuendo are piling up. Some old McCain hands disapprove--and have started to do so publicly. The relationship between McCain and the press, famously described by Chris Matthews as "his base," is going sour. And the Washington Post reports that candidate himself doesn't seem to be adapting well to the style of his new team, with its relentless emphasis on message discipline. ("[H]e is no Bush, his handlers say." Brrrr.)
Josh Marshall this evening has a concise summation of what seems to be happening here:
It was always clear that it was going to be hard for John McCain to emerge from this campaign with his reputation and the presidency, simply because of the rough terrain any Republican faces this year. At this point, it's clear that by the end of this, the reputation is going to be shot. There's just been too much demonstrable lying on the candidate's part, too much sleazy campaigning, too much outsourcing his campaign to Karl Rove. More and more editorialists and even some of the prestige pundits are starting to see it.
So that means, he has to win. Because if he doesn't, he's got nothing left. All he is is a four term senator from a medium-sized state with no legislative record. It's an eminently worthwhile task to chronicle his descent.
The battle between "good McCain" and "bad McCain" continues apace, however. The Post story I linked to above ends with an anecdote about McCain taking a question from the sort of rabid right-winger whom Bush essentially could undress on the trail: the questioner expressed his disdain for McCain's embrace of "amnesty" for immigrants and his support for "the global warming crowd's agenda." But rather than flatter the guy's ignorance, as the script calls for, McCain "launched into a long explanation of his role in a compromise on judges, something that conservatives often criticize him for." And he concluded by reminding his listeners--who presumably wouldn't place great value on such a thing--that "I've stood up against my party many times" because he thought it was the right thing to do.
Perhaps there's hope that McCain will keep his soul and lose the election, which seems to be the best outcome.