Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek
Byline: Jonathan Alter
By his own admission, John McCain knew a little something about crashing aircraft when he was in the Navy. Three times, he ended up losing control in the cockpit, and that doesn't even include when he was shot down over Hanoi and taken prisoner in 1967. Now the combination of his surprisingly poor third-place showing in early fund-raising and that embarrassing photo op at a Baghdad market has sent his presidential campaign spiraling downward. Given his five and a half years as a POW in Vietnam, even serious political mishaps aren't likely to faze him. But he has no easy way to pull out of this tailspin. McCain's in trouble because he is out of sync with the country and with himself.
The senator's timing seems off in a way that might be admirable if it weren't so politically clumsy. McCain trashed President Bush when he was popular--and now champions him when he's down. The trashing angered many Republicans, who could never fully trust McCain again after his apostasy on tax cuts, torture and a dozen other issues where he always seemed to be highlighting his independence from Bush on TV. And promoting success in Iraq seems at odds with the facts on the ground: the "significant progress" McCain said he saw came when the average daily death toll of Iraqis was higher in March than in February.
On the surface, McCain's strategy for becoming president makes perfect sense. He repressed the maverick spirit of the 2000 campaign (it didn't get him elected last time, he's said), hired a bunch of Bushies and signed off on a strategy of kissing up to the hard-core conservatives who dominate the Republican primaries. The fact that many liberals and independents fell out of love with him didn't seem relevant; they don't vote in those contests. Under the GOP's system of primogeniture, the nomination traditionally goes to the guy whose turn it is. It's McCain's turn, so he figured all he had to do was sound a few conservative themes and line up the right endorsements. He'd lock it up early, then tack to the center for the general election.
But something's gone terribly wrong. The political positioning is too transparent to be convincing. While the other leading Republican contenders--Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney--are even less conservative than he is, they don't seem to be paying much of a price for it, at least not yet. Apparently, they haven't been on the national stage long enough to engender the conservative hostility directed McCain's way. Even so, it's a surprise that Giuliani has opened up such a consistent lead on McCain in the polls and that Romney (while still mostly unknown) was able to tap his Wall Street and Mormon connections to bury McCain in the first "money primary"--the heavily hyped race to see who raised the most cash in the first quarter of 2007. McCain confessed that he will have to retool his fund-raising operation, presumably in order to bag the same loot from lobbyists he has spent his career railing against. Even though Republicans don't like campaign-finance reform, his new determination to build a conventional money machine adds to the impression of hypocrisy.
Then there's the question of whether his time has passed. (He'd be 72 when inaugurated, the oldest American president to be sworn in to a first term.) On some critical global issues, McCain seems out of touch. "Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?" he was recently asked aboard his bus, the Straight Talk Express. After a long pause, the senator replied, "You've stumped me." McCain remains an endearing, sometimes provocative, campaigner, but the magic is on the wane.
That's because he's bogged down in Iraq. McCain's latest problem began before he left for the region, when he told Bill Bennett on the radio that "there are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk today." After Michael Ware of CNN's Baghdad bureau accused the senator of living in "Neverland," McCain charged that it's reporters who are living in a "time warp of three months ago. …