John McCain's failure to inspire the Republican Party is not a surprise. He has spent the last eight years boasting how he opposed the party on fertile issues such as campaign finance reform and offshore-drilling. He has devoted more time in his campaign to making up with the Democrats who mock his appeasement—that facile "reach across the aisle" bromide—than he has to making up with the GOP, who want to believe him despite his boastful indiscipline called the Gang of 14 and his loony immigration apostasy with his Republican-bashing pal Ted Kennedy. What is a surprise is that after one year of listening to the hoarse, pedantic voice of the oldest man ever to run for the first time for president repeat tiresomely how qualified he is, how traveled and tested, what a world historical figure he will be staring down Comrade KGB, it is unclear why he wants to be president, why he thinks he is a Republican, and what in Creation he could be?
Why does John McCain want to be president? It's not good that, with hours to go until the vote, the answer is uncertain. A McCain-friendly radio host told me that the candidate's recent reply to the question was something pompous, patriotic, and vague about "service." How about a translation for the 98 million voters who have never worn a uniform, please, Mr. McCain? An electrician on a Coast Guard ship, or a volunteer school crossing guard, believes in service, but doesn't aim to be POTUS. John McCain has claimed elsewhere that he runs to balance the budget, keep America secure, find Osama Bin Laden, hold faith with the veterans, reform entitlements, and get rid of those pesky earmarks, none of which is are a reason to be more than a cranky senator. How about a vision, a plan? How about a destination? How about stating that you are going to find out who wrecked Fannie Mae and Lehman Brothers and AIG and make them answer to you, to the law, and to us?
The only thing worse for the GOP than a Democrat in the White House would be the charming, whimsical, intractable, purposeless John McCain.
The frustration at Mr. McCain's random inarticulateness is so commonplace in the party that a Republican columnist joked with me by paraphrasing a witticism told by Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona. "The good news is that John McCain believes in country, duty, service. The bad news is that that's all he believes in."
Why does John McCain think he is a Republican? Again, the party is perplexed. On campaign finance reform, he is dead against the party and for the Democrats, and no one I know has forgiven him an inch for the inert McCain-Feingold in 2002, which has now been trashed by the gargantuan unfettered fundraising by the Obama-Biden campaign. "It was his vanity," an always charitable conservative columnist told me. "There are people who have been hurt by that law," a young Republican legislator seethed. "It's why we hate him."
It is the same with ANWR, wherein Mr. McCain spent years siding with the holy thinkers at The New York Times and The Washington Post and their progressive protégés. The result is that the newspapers disdain him anyway, and when the polls this summer showed the public overwhelmingly siding with the Republicans on drilling, the Democrats switched sides, leaving John McCain unloved and uninformed. Even when his running mate is Governor Drill, Drill, Drill, Mr. McCain does not awaken to his own knuckleheaded pride and say, I'm wrong. Instead, he talks about cap-and-trade as if he is Al Gore's acolyte and Barack Obama's fellow student.
As a founding member of the Munich-inspired Gang of 14, John McCain's record with the court fights in the Bush administration is so treacherous that no one speaks of it without scoffing. "He pledges he won't compromise," a major conservative editor told me of recent McCain promises about his presidency. "He says he'll stick to his guns." There is no confidence that John McCain means what he says. The charge John McCain heaves at Barack Obama, that he'll say anything to get elected, is a charge the Republicans aim at Mr. McCain. "He's running a campaign divorced from the Republican Party," is the verdict.
The darkest hour of John McCain's presidential candidacy he saved until the close, when he double-crossed the party, his congressional allies, and his own chances for election during the fiasco of the uncooked Hank Paulson bailout stew. No one needed or wanted John McCain to suspend his aimless campaign and rush to Washington like Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith. He didn't go for principle or even for campaign tactics against the surprised Obama campaign; he went to Washington to make himself look good and to back the status quo ante—like a good member of Nancy Pelosi's caucus. To the GOP House members who fought against the bill and won the first vote, McCain looked like toothless busybody or worse, a sellout. "He took no personal responsibility," a Republican House member who still regards the bailout as a blank check for half-cocked socialism. "His attitude was, who cares what's in the bill? How do you bitch about earmarks like John McCain and then throw $150 billion of pork on top of a $700 billion blank check that didn't work?"
John McCain is not much of a Republican, and he is too unbridled to be a Democrat, so what in Creation is he? "An incompetent populist," was the most sheathed answer I heard. "An ego seeking high office," and "a party of one," were harsher verdicts. The truth might be rougher. John McCain is the same aviator he always was, fly all day, drink all night, chase the girls and let the Navy think for you. Yes, he will get tens of millions of votes, and yes he may close in the polls, but no, there is no future for him in the Republican Party except as a respectable, harmless old sailor—always a hero, never a leader. The party he abused for a decade will no longer love him or fear him. It is strange solace to say that the GOP will enjoy luck at the end, because the only thing worse for the party than a Democrat in the White House would be the charming, whimsical, intractable, purposeless John McCain.