I'm one of those members of the "liberal media" who had a soft spot for John McCain. Despite his conservative Republican politics, he made a lot of friends among reporters, especially during the 2000 primary campaign, just by being himself. Unlike the other hopelessly cautious, stage-managed candidates, McCain had that accessible, plainspoken style that is a rare find in Washington. That was before Karl Rove torpedoed his candidacy in South Carolina. In a move the Bush campaign never took credit for, but which benefited it enormously, unnamed Republican operatives suggested that McCain had an "illegitimate black child"--actually, he and his wife had adopted the child from India. That played as expected with the conservative base in South Carolina, stopped McCain's insurgent momentum, and threw the key primary to Bush.
The beginning of McCain's decline was his decision, afterwards, to stand by Bush despite that disgusting use of dirty politics. No one with Presidential ambitions can afford to abandon his party's nominee, and McCain dutifully stumped for Bush, despite their personal and political differences.
The old McCain appeared after the 2000 election when, as President Bush stumbled in the polls, Tim Russert asked his former rival on Meet the Press if he ever thought about how he might have been the one in the White House. "Every day, Tim," McCain responded with his trademark wry humor. “Every day."
To his credit, he continued to fight alongside Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, for campaign finance reform. The legislation itself was flawed, and has not stopped the flow of cash to campaigns, but part of the reason McCain's campaign is in such grave financial trouble now, some have suggested, is that he alienated so many big, corporate donors by sticking to principle on that issue.
On other issues, McCain was less endearing. Perhaps the biggest reason his campaign is failing is his decision to stick with the President--even at this late date--on his decision to lead the United States into the disastrous war in Iraq.
Seeing McCain on the Senate floor this week—standing in front of a big map of Iraq and trying to explain how things are on the brink of turning around in the war, despite the defection of just about everyone, including some of McCain's own formerly hard-core Republican colleagues—was depressing. It was the same day the news broke that several of McCain's top advisers had quit the campaign. The wheels are off the wagon. No one believes McCain's reassuring take on the war, after he asserted that Baghdad was perfectly safe. Singing "Bomb, Bomb,Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran" was pretty bad, too.
The sad thing, though, is imagining what might have been. McCain could have been a maverick on Iraq, the way he was on other issues. If only he had seen the reality in Iraq, as some of his colleagues did, he could have been a powerful voice. Like his fellow veterans John Murtha, James Webb, and fellow Republican Senator John Warner, he could have spoken out for the troops and against this ill-conceived war. When he did speak out--against the torture of prisoners by the U.S. military--his credibility on that issue made him a powerful voice. Tragically, he ceded the high ground and signed off on a compromise with the Bush White House that let the torture continue.
Presidential ambitions made McCain a far less interesting and less effective legislator. Now that his campaign is tanking, it seems particularly unfortunate.