McCain's New York State of Mind

UPDATE, Oct. 18:So I see that MSNBC has linked to this item under the headline "Is the Old McCain Back?" For the record, I don't have anything to do with MSNBC's editorial decisions, and if you read the piece, you'll see that I never actually pose that question. But just for fun, I'll answer it. Do I think the "old McCain" is back? No. In fact, that was the point of my item. Seeing McCain on Letterman and at the Al Smith dinner reminded me of what's been missing from his bid in recent weeks: humor, spontaneity, confidence, comfort, selflessness, etc.--i.e., the things that once made him so popular.

In other words, I was using McCain's night in New York to point out how far he's drifted from his center of gravity--not that he's returned to it. I think bringing the "old McCain" back, whatever that means, would be a good thing. But I don't think it's going to happen (or even that it could happen at this point). Either way, it certainly hasn't happened yet.

FYI, I wrote earlier this week about how the media is itching to create a McCain comeback narrative--even though the polls provide no evidence of a bounce. Funny how I've now been drafted to help with that effort.

Original item follows: 


As Sinatra once said about New York, "if [you] can make it there, [you] can make it anywhere." So why does the opposite seem true for John McCain?

Last night, McCain made two appearances here in the Big Apple: one at the Al Smith Dinner, an annual white-tie Catholic charity event that honors the former Empire State governor and first Roman Catholic presidential nominee, and the other alongside David Letterman on the "Late Show." Watching him in both settings, I couldn't help but be reminded of the man who was once the Most Popular Politician in America®--and marvel at how little the candidate who showed up at Wednesday's debate resembled him.

McCain's performance at the Waldorf-Astoria--a roast, essentially--was crisp, smooth and confident; he easily earned more laughs than Barack Obama, who followed him to the podium. The senator's trump card, I think, was self-deprecation--an ability and willingness to mock his own foibles (and the absurdities of the politics he's engaged in) that's he's kept pretty well hidden for the past few months. He joked that he'd "dismissed [his] entire team of senior advisers" and filled "all of their positions" with "a man named Joe the Plumber." He made light of his own wealth, revealing that Joe had "recently signed a very lucrative contract with a wealthy couple to handle the work on all seven of their houses." He acknowledged his slip in the second debate--referring to his rival as "that one"--by explaining that Obama "even has a pet name for me--'George Bush'." And he closed on a gracious note. "I can't wish [Obama] luck," McCain said. "But I do wish him well."

More impressive, though, was his performance on Letterman. At the Al Smith Dinner, McCain was working off a well-written script. On Letterman, he was improvising--and facing off against a rather unfriendly interrogator. Clearly peeved that the senator had skipped out on his last scheduled appearance, Letterman pressed him hard--as hard as I've seen him pressed, in fact--on a wide array of topics: his campaign suspension; Joe the Plumber; Osama bin Laden; the extremists who attend his rallies; Sarah Palin's qualifications; William Ayers. McCain was forced to revisit much of material that was covered in his three debates with Obama. But gone was the smirking, the blinking, the seething; gone also were the disorienting, awkward transitions from one talking point to the next.

When McCain tried to be funny, he was funny. "I haven’t had so much fun since my last interrogation," he said at one point. Later, he joked that Ayers and Obama--in a line that seemed to mock his own campaign's relentless harping on their "relationship"--"may be going to Denny's together." "Who knows?" he added, citing "the Grand Slam" as an important factor to consider. When the moment called for candor, McCain was candid. "I know Gordon Liddy," he admitted (Letterman had asked whether voters should see Liddy as McCain's Ayers). "He paid his debt. He went to prison, he paid his debt, as people do." And McCain even managed some self-deprecation--again, a quality sorely lacking in his debate performances. "I screwed up," he said of his decision to skip the show. "'It’s only Dave. There’s only a few million who’ll be watching. What the hell? Who cares?'" You may not have agreed with him on everything--I still think, for example, that he's wrong to harp on ACORN and Ayers--but you couldn't help respecting him. There was none of the nastiness or defensiveness that marred his debate performances. He seemed like a human being again--as opposed to a politician.

Over the past few months, McCain's popularity has suffered a precipitous decline. I think that as a lot to do with the contrast between how he and Obama presented themselves in Oxford, Nashville and Hempstead. A more appealing McCain may show up at the occasional town-hall meeting. But when everyone was watching (and by everyone, I mean, like, 100 million Americans) he let his self-regard and resentment get the best of him--which, in turn, let Obama look like the only human being in the race. John Heilemann hits the proverbial nail on its proverbial head in his latest New York magazine column. "McCain gave off a vibe of profound and all-encompassing solipsism [at the debates]," he writes. "In his complaints last night about Obama’s negative ads ... he came across as aggrieved, self-pitying, whiny, entitled. The unspoken sentiment behind his words and bearing was, 'This fatuous, line-jumping, all-talk-no-action punk is about to take the job that was supposed to be mine! Can you believe this s--t?!' The issues he incessantly chose to harp on--earmarks, ethanol, Colombian free trade--are, to put it mildly, idiosyncratic and pet-peevish. In other words, it’s all about him." For a man who has given his entire life in service to the country--and who is most comfortable and most compelling when calling people to serve a cause greater than themselves--that's exactly the wrong impression to give. In the debates, McCain squandered his greatest resource. It's why a little self-deprecation would've gone a long way.

Obama, in contrast, spent "all three debates labor[ing] mightily to turn every disquisition back to the concerns of you, the voter." When the subject shifted to stuff that the voters don't care about--at least in Obama's estimation--he'd immediately remind everyone that he'd rather be addressing "what really matters" (i.e., the economy). This, of course, is pure political theater. But it's working. Fifty-four percent of viewers saidMcCain seemed more like a typical politician during the Hofstra debate; only 35 percent said the same about Obama. Sixty-six percent viewed Obama favorably--versus only 49 percent for McCain. At the start of debate season, both candidates enjoyed a 17-point net favorable rating in national polls. Since then, Obama's number has soared to 21.8; McCain's has plummeted to eight. Today, many Americans probably see Obama the same way conservative columnist David Brooks sees him: "self-contained, self-controlled and maybe even a little dull." Translation: "presidential." 

Obama, of course, has the advantage of a lead. He can afford to float above the fray. McCain, on the other hand, has to scrap and scrape if he hopes to catch up. But I'm starting to wonder if the Arizona senator will reach a tipping point and decide that the costs of pursuing a conventional underdog strategy--that is, trying to tear Obama down--outweigh any imaginable benefits. If he does, expect him to start sounding a lot less like he sounded in Oxford, Nashville and Hempstead--and a lot more like he sounded last night in New York. It's highly unlikely--how 'bout them robocalls?--and it won't be enough to make him king of the hill or top of the heap. But it could be better than the alternative.