Let McCain Be McCain

The big political headline this week, of course, involves John McCain’s endless and humiliating attempts to placate Mitt Romney by bowing to demands he hire his operatives and pay his campaign debt. So far all he’s got is a grudging one-sentence endorsement from that rampaging rage-aholic Ann Romney.

Oh wait, got confused, that’s Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Obama! Obama! Obama!The way it used to be is you ran and lost and either disappeared or pitched in. Mrs. Clinton continues making Mr. Obama look the dauphin to her embittered and domineering queen.

What a hothouse of egos and drama the Democratic Party has become.

Mr. McCain just can’t get as much coverage as Mr. Obama, or the coverage is dutiful and therefore deadly. “McCain Unveils Proposal.” “McCain Responds.” At Google News there are 97,000 stories on Mr. McCain as I write this column, 138,000 on Mr. Obama. You know Mr. McCain’s problems. He’s old, he’s angered everyone along the way, he never seems to mean it. His stands seem like positions. He bebops from issue to issue and never seems fully engaged in the real meat of policy, the content of it.

Also, we all know him. This, in time, will become a benefit to him—a big one. At the moment, early on, it’s not. Mr. Obama has the lightning, he’s new, he’s still just being discovered. Or, as a person who runs a news site that traditionally treats Republicans fairly told me, “He’s fun.” McCain supporters have ginned up email campaigns aimed at people who run sites saying, to paraphrase, We notice your coverage is heavily Obama. We hope this is not a financial or opportunistic decision. We hope you’re not tired of being brave. I should say it looks like it’s ginned up by McCain supporters, or rather D.C. Republicans.

What a hotbed of incompetent manipulation they have become.

Mr. Obama’s coverage is not all press bias. He sells papers and moves traffic. So right now it’s all about him, or rather will be when Big Bertha gets out of the way. People are going to keep looking at him because they’ve heard the polls that say he’s 5 or 12 or 15 points ahead. They can stop him or ease his way. They’re looking to figure out which.

What can Mr. McCain do? It’s still early, a lot of history has yet to unspool, we’ve entered summer and the shallow part of the campaign, the doldrums, there’s a little space. He should take advantage of it and have some fun.

This would be a good time for him to get interesting again. And he’ll find it easy because he is interesting. That’s why the boys on the bus loved him in 2000. That’s why the Republican base rejected him in 2000. He was hot and George W. Bush was—well, let’s call it mellow. Mr. McCain attacked Christian conservative leaders while Mr. Bush played them. Republicans were trying to recover from eight years of interesting. They didn’t want more.

I used to think what Mr. McCain’s aides thought after he started winning: He has to change now, be more formal, more constrained. That was exactly wrong.

Let McCain be McCain. Get him in the papers being who he is, get people looking at his real nature. Maybe then they’ll start taking him seriously when he talks policy. Maybe he’ll start taking himself seriously when he talks policy.

The most interesting thing about Mr. McCain has always been the delight he takes in a certain unblinkered candor. There is also the antic part of his nature, his natural wit, his tropism toward comedy. All this was captured wonderfully by Mark Leibovich last February in the New York Times. Mr. McCain had taken the lead in the primaries and had gone from being “one of the most disruptive forces in his party” to someone playing it safe. In an airplane interview he said things like, “There is a process in place that will formalize the methodology.” Then he couldn’t help it, he became McCain:

“[He] volunteered that Brooke Buchanan, his spokeswoman who was seated nearby and rolling her eyes, ‘has a lot of her money hidden in the Cayman Islands’ and that she earned it by ‘dealing drugs.’ Previously, Mr. McCain had identified Ms. Buchanan as ‘Pat Buchanan’s illegitimate daughter,’ ‘bipolar,’ ‘a drunk,’ ‘someone with a lot of boyfriends,’ and ‘just out of Betty Ford.’”

That’s my boy. That’s the McCain his friends love, McCain unplugged. The fall will be dead serious. At this point why not be himself, be human? Let him refind his inner rebel, the famous irreverent maverick, let the tiger out of the cage. It won’t solve everything but it will help obscure some other problems. His campaign is still not in great shape, his advance operation is not sharp—the one thing Republicans always used to know how to do!—he has many aides and few peers, and aides so doofuslike they blithely talk about the partisan impact of terror attacks.

And there is another problem that is bigger than all of that, and he is going to have to think himself through it. And that is that there is a sense about his campaign that . . . John McCain has already got what he wanted, he got what he needed, which was to be top dog in the Republican Party, the party that had abused him in 2000 and cast him aside. They all bow to him now, and he doesn’t need anything else. He doesn’t need the presidency. He got what he wanted. So now he can coast. This is, in the deepest way, unserious. JFK had to have the presidency—he wanted that thing. Nixon had to have it too, and Reagan had to have it to institute his new way. Clinton had to have it—it was his destiny, the thing he’d wanted since he was a teenager.

The last person I can think of who gave off the vibe that he didn’t have to have it was Bob Dole. Who didn’t get it. And who had a similar lack of engagement in terms of policy, and philosophy, and meaning.

Everyone in New York is saying, “What will happen?” “How do you see it?” “Who will win?” In this year of all years, who knows? My sense of it:

The campaign will grind along until a series of sharp moments. Maybe they will come in the debates. Things will move along, Mr. Obama in the lead. And then, just a few weeks out from the election, something will happen: America will look up and see the inevitability of Mr. Obama, that Mr. Obama has already been “elected,” in a way, and America will say, Hey, wait a second, are we sure we want that? And it will tighten indeed.

The race has a subtext, a historic encounter between the Old America and the New, and suddenly the Old America—those who are literally old, who married a guy who fought at the Chosin Reservoir, and those not so old who yet remember, and cherish, the special glories of the Old—will rise, and join in, and make themselves heard. They will not leave without a fight.

And on that day John McCain will suddenly make it a race, as if moved by them and wanting to come through for them one last time. And then on down to the wire. And then . . .

And then. What a year, what an election. It continues to confound and to bedazzle.