John McCain has taken on a Job-like appearance. Stripped of friends, supporters and cash, he has fallen from front-runner to destitute long shot. It is worth pondering how he got here.
The reason for his fall has less to do with his current crop of opponents than it does with his previous nemesis. George W. Bush beat him once. It looks like he’s going to be Mr. McCain’s undoing this time as well.
Mr. McCain did everything imaginable this time around to stave off a repeat of his 2000 loss. But like the general fighting the last war, he chose precisely the wrong tactics. He mended fences with evangelical leaders and in essence decided he would be the George Bush of 2008. He gathered in the Bush Pioneers and Rangers by the boatload, created a gargantuan campaign operation, and unleashed his “oppo” research operation on Mitt Romney.
No more maverick, no more rebel. He would capture the hearts of the party faithful just as Bush had done in 2000 by reassuring them of his conservative bona fides and creating a sense of inevitability. Indeed, he made that point most clearly in South Carolina—the state that was his undoing seven years ago—by starting early there and gaining the support of the Republican state speaker of the House, who then delivered dozens of endorsements from state officials.
On a tactical level, none of this worked. Building a giant campaign machine only burned through money, wrecking Mr. McCain’s reputation for frugality in the process. The big-time fund-raisers proved to be not so big. The attacks aimed at Mr. Romney only raised the former governor’s profile and made Mr. McCain look small and angry.
Beyond the tactics, Mr. McCain was undone by his fidelity to the president’s policies.
On immigration, Mr. Bush, again, was Mr. McCain’s worst friend. Encouraging a backroom deal that pleased no one and enraged the base, the president made his play for a legacy. Bound to an increasingly petulant president and hawking a bill Republicans loathed, Mr. McCain soon became the target of every conservative blogger and talk show host in the country. The proposal died an early death, but primary voters are unlikely to forget the source of their anger.
And the Iraq war, of course, is proving to be Mr. Bush’s great albatross. First, he ignored Mr. McCain’s advice and stubbornly stuck with Donald Rumsfeld and a failing strategy. The president finally acknowledged there were far fewer troops than needed and adopted the McCain-inspired surge in a last ditch attempt to stave off military and political disaster. Mr. McCain’s efforts may have earned him credit with at least part of the Republican base, but the branch may be sawed off behind him if Congressional Republicans run for cover and the administration tries to repackage the surge as a prelude to withdrawal.
None of this is to say that Mr. McCain supported the president only out of convenience on these issues. He certainly believes passionately in immigration reform, and his desire for victory in Iraq is genuine. His mistake was assuming that the president was competent enough to carry out his agenda. When Mr. Bush proved otherwise, the policies fizzled, and Mr. McCain only suffered by his association with them.
Mr. McCain, unwilling to be silent but perhaps unable to win, will be the Greek chorus of this primary. He will make himself an unignorable thorn in his opponents’ sides, pointing out their flip-flops, chastising them when they play to the crowd and daring them to act on principle. He has nothing to lose at this point and therefore may be the most dangerous man in the race.
But as for his candidacy, he can only hope that, stripped of his legions of advisers, his own voice—piercing, defiant and, sometimes, courageously lonely—finds a receptive audience. It may not. His time may have passed, his candidacy the victim of a poor decision to hitch his political star to the president’s.