Alter: McCain's Meltdown

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." (He later told "60 Minutes" he misspoke about security in Baghdad.) He respects Michael Gordon of The New York Times, who got in trouble with his paper when he told Charlie Rose that the surge might work. (Had Gordon said it would likely fail, it's hard to imagine the Times rebuking him for editorializing.) But McCain remains in danger of now being perceived as a garden-variety GOP press basher. "We certainly don't get it [the truth about progress in Iraq] through the filter of the media," he said, in a sharp departure from the valentines he once sent to what he only half-jokingly called his "base."

Decamping in Iraq, McCain looked even worse. Accompanied by commanding Gen. David Petraeus and other members of a congressional delegation, he ventured into Baghdad's Shorja market, wearing sunglasses and a bulletproof vest. When Indiana Rep. Mike Pence said the scene reminded him of farmers markets back home and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham bought rugs for $1 apiece as if nothing were amiss, the press pounced. Reporters quoted vendors disparaging the Americans, and news accounts noted that McCain and his party had been protected by 100 American troops and two choppers. The episode began to resemble Michael Dukakis in the tank or Bush onboard the aircraft carrier—a photo op from hell.

This week McCain will try to salvage his credibility with a carefully worded speech about Iraq. According to staff members, who wouldn't be named discussing the senator's plans, he'll reiterate his argument that even with only two of the five American brigades deployed, the signs of progress in the Baghdad security plan are real and measurable. He'll assert that the Maliki government is finally making tough decisions, like moving forward on an oil-sharing plan and coordinating with Sunni sheiks in Anbar province to fight Al Qaeda. And he'll caution that none of this means victory is certain.

It's a roll of the dice. McCain has essentially lashed his presidential prospects to Petraeus. If the surge succeeds, McCain's campaign will surge, too. If it fails, as most analysts outside the Bush administration believe it will, McCain will either have to reverse course in the fall or go into the primaries as the fiasco's main cheerleader. To ratchet up the irony, he has said repeatedly that he doesn't believe that Bush is putting in enough additional troops. That means McCain is betting his political future on a strategy he believes is flawed, executed by a president he has never much liked.

To understand why he's doing this, we need to go back to his own experience in a faraway war. "This is all about Vietnam," says a longtime diplomat who insists on anonymity because he's supporting another candidate. "You can see it in his face. This triggers all the complexities of his father and grandfather and the code of honor he has written about and believes in deeply. It's hitting him in his gut. It's not a rational thing. If it were, he'd listen to the advisers who are telling him to move toward a diplomatic solution."

John McCain may be playing the political angles on various social issues, but not on Iraq. Henry Clay, the great 19th-century senator, once said, "I'd rather be right than be president." Sadly for McCain, the odds are growing that he'll be neither.