The Downside to Individuality

The conventional wisdom – for very good reason – is that John McCain’s presidential campaign is now cooked, and that the only remaining question is whether he’ll drop out early or wait until a few humiliating primary and caucus performances next year.

In the instant-analysis of the latest sign of death for his effort – the departures of two top strategists (and possibly three, depending on what you make of Mark Salter’s status) – the only silver lining for McCain are suggestions that it may be for the best that he’s imploding now, six months before the primaries, since he was never a natural fit as a front-runner and that this frees him to run as an unrestrained maverick, as he did in 2000.

The problem with that, though, is that it’s McCain’s maverick side that appears to have done him in: the two issues that have brought him to this low moment, Iraq and immigration, are the ones on which he has been every bit the contrarian he was seven years ago.

His fellow Senate Republicans, spooked by mounting public rage, are now slowly but steadily moving to back an Iraq exit strategy, but Mr. McCain – at the very moment his campaign shake-up was announced – took to the Senate floor today to reaffirm his support for the troop surge and to blast calls for troop rollbacks and dramatic strategic changes.

The same, obviously, goes for immigration, where his push for a 13-year path to citizenship for guest workers aroused seething hostility from his party’s base, who view it only as “amnesty for illegal aliens.”

And yet, since he plunged into the ’08 race, the straight talk mojo that fueled McCain in 2000 has been noticeably absent. In part, this can be attributed to his transparent flip-flopping to court right wing voters who so mistrusted him in ’00 – a tactic best summed up by his ring-kissing visit to the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University throne last year. Gestures like that helped cost McCain the media cheering section that was vital to his previous success.

But the notion that he’s now positioned to reclaim his maverick credentials – and to win back his friends in the Fourth Estate – doesn’t ring true. Given his more recent posture, an effort by McCain to revert to his ’00 form on cultural wedge issues – renewing, for instance, his criticisms of the party’s Christian right leaders – would be most unconvincing. Nor can he now reverse himself on Iraq and immigration, given the turf he’s staked out on both issues.

McCain’s ’08 ship is not sinking because he’s failed to live up to his maverick’s reputation. He’s failing because he picked the two worst issues on which to show his maverick side.