The listing McCain campaign has descended into a bout of pre-criminations that is delightful fodder for political reporters. Who can deny that some cretinous McCain aide calling Sarah Palin “a diva” makes good copy?
John McCain still has a chance to win, so it’d be more sensible to delay the “who lost 2008?” debate until after Nov. 4. But since it’s already in full flower, let’s consider a chief culprit in the campaign’s current low state — the candidate.
This is the McCain paradox: No other Republican candidate had a character and background — as a courageously independent spirit — better suited to making the presidential campaign competitive this year. But perhaps no Republican candidate was so poorly suited to the task of running a presidential race.
McCain earned his chops as the media’s favorite Republican senator by being a maverick, or in a less exalted formulation, a gadfly. He pursued pet causes inimical to his party, such as campaign-finance reform, and made it his role to tell fellow Republicans what he considered hard truths.
None of this endeared him to Republican primary voters. He won the nomination anyway on the basis of his admirable support for the surge (adopted when he was in typical gadfly mode) and a few stock lines. He became the Republican nominee by default, without an organization or fundraising operation to speak of, and soon enough lost the press, too.
McCain’s rapport with the media depended on snarky banter about his own party and about himself. That couldn’t continue in the general election, so McCain’s campaign cut him off. His lifeline to his former admirers denied to him, McCain became a demonstrably unhappy warrior.
As a gadfly, McCain often attacked Republican campaign tactics. He denounced the Swift Boat vets in 2004. Still thinking like a gadfly, back in April he reprimanded the North Carolina Republican Party for running an ad featuring the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In ruling Wright out of bounds, McCain had taken off the table Barack Obama’s most damaging association. McCain had gadflied himself!
Not surprisingly, McCain has been badly outclassed in fundraising by Obama. As a gadfly, McCain always considered fundraising fundamentally distasteful. He celebrated the public financing rules that Obama has blown by on his way to raising some $750 million. McCain was so adamant about campaign-finance strictures that he harangued against independent groups, so-called 527s, and partly as a result, there are few of them to come to his aid in his desperate hour of financial need.
When you’re a gadfly, you can flit above the substantive debate, because it’s your posture rather than your knowledge of policy that matters most. People who argued with McCain years ago about campaign-finance reform always were shocked by how little he knew about his own signature policy initiative. It’s been a long road for McCain to get up to speed on domestic policy, and he’s constantly fallen back on one of his greatest hits as a gadfly, his opposition to earmarks.
Gadflies are loners because they spend so much time offending their own side. In his initial primary campaign prior to the 2007 meltdown, McCain staffed up with Bush loyalists — because there were so few McCain loyalists — who didn’t understand his appeal. Now, his general-election campaign is rife with former Bush staffers leaking to the press to save their post-McCain campaign reputations. Ah, the agony of the gadfly.
Outside his campaign, meanwhile, McCain is getting abandoned by all the Republicans who usually pronounce themselves “troubled” by Republican tactics. If McCain weren’t running for president, and it were some other Republican who had attacked Obama for his associations and picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, surely McCain himself would be on some Sunday show clucking his disapproval.
But he can’t be a gadfly now, at least not for another week or so. McCain’s character and background still might see him through somehow, despite a lackluster effort for which he, the gadfly as nominee, bears most of the blame.
© 2008 by King Features Syndicate