Jon Alter Dissects McCain's Missteps

In the middle of John McCain's dopey Britney & Paris attack ad, the announcer gravely asks of Barack Obama: "Is He Ready to Lead?" An equally good question is whether McCain is ready to lead. For a man who will turn 72 this month, he's a surprisingly immature politician—erratic, impulsive and subject to peer pressure from the last knucklehead who offers him advice. The youthful insouciance that for many years has helped McCain charm reporters like me is now channeled into an ad that one GOP strategist labeled "juvenile," another termed "childish" and McCain's own mother called "stupid." The Obama campaign's new mantra is that McCain is "an honorable man running a dishonorable campaign." Lame is more like it. And out of sync with the real guy.

Of course, it might work. Maybe depicting Obama as a presumptuous and vaguely foreign presence will resonate. (Why else would one of McCain's slogans be "An American president for America"?) Maybe voters will agree with McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, who played the fussy card last week by arguing the central importance to the future of the republic of Obama's taste for "MET-Rx chocolate roasted peanut protein bars and bottles of a hard-to-find organic brew called Black Forest Berry Honest Tea." (Davis somehow forgot to mention McCain's own preference for $520 Ferragamo shoes.) Maybe convincing nervous white voters that Obama is another Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson in his use of racial grievance politics will carry McCain to the White House.

But this is not 1988, when Vice President George Bush turned Michael Dukakis into an unpatriotic coddler of criminals. (Bush that year had a popular president and a strong economy behind him.) And it's not 2004, when his son Swift-Boated John Kerry. (The president would have likely won anyway by playing on post-9/11 fear.) This year, McCain is running under a tattered Republican banner, with more than 80 percent of the public thinking the country is on the wrong track. Without some compelling vision beyond support for offshore drilling, the negativity may well boomerang. "It's hard to imagine America responding to 'small ball' when we have all these problems," says John Weaver, McCain's chief strategist in 2000 who was pushed out of the campaign last year.

With the exception of Mark Salter, who is still friendly with Weaver, the rest of McCain's high command says Weaver is just bitter and disloyal. "Actually, it's being loyal," Weaver says. "I want him to win." He's despondent over the destruction of a priceless maverick brand. McCain's zesty Theodore Roosevelt-style attacks on corporate greed and inspiring plans for expanding national service are gone, replaced by Karl Rove's playbook. "When was the last time you heard the word 'reform' or 'service' come out of his mouth?" Weaver asks. "We need to return to the John McCain who speaks his mind. Instead, it's Dick Butkus running a West Coast Offense or Wilt Chamberlain playing point guard. It's not going to work."

That's because McCain is patently insincere when his heart's not in it, like a little boy who eats his peas when his parents tell him to but remains transparently unhappy about the experience. It's not clear how committed McCain himself is to this latest assault on Obama. Does he genuinely believe that Obama is an out-of-control egomaniac who thinks he's Moses? McCain no doubt comforts himself that the ad making that argument—an argument that is beneath a major-party candidate for president—was not part of a big media buy but just chum thrown to the media piranhas via the Drudge Report.

McCain's erratic campaign has GOP strategists scratching their heads. The obvious play for him was to tack right during the primaries, then navigate back to the center, where American general elections are always won. Conservative base voters can rarely be turned into McCain enthusiasts. But most will reluctantly vote for him. So why jeopardize his standing with independents by being grouchy and partisan? Makes no sense.

I misread McCain. On the night of the 2000 South Carolina primary, I was in his hotel suite and watched Cindy weeping over what Rove and his goons did. Her husband was plenty mad, too. Now he's got Rove's protégé, Steve Schmidt, running his campaign. Eight years ago, McCain profusely apologized for playing racial politics in South Carolina by backing efforts to fly the Confederate flag at the state capital. Now he's content to see race crowd out the economy in the battle for precious media oxygen. McCain argues that Obama opened himself up to attack by saying, "They're gonna say he doesn't look like those other presidents on the dollar bills." But if his campaign hadn't leaped on that Obama comment, it would have been another. Accusing the other guy of playing the race card is a not terribly subtle form of, well, playing the race card—and the victim.

The real question is what all of this might mean for a McCain presidency. The list of troubling portents is growing long: repeated campaign staff upheavals reflecting poor management skills; abrupt reversals on big issues like tax cuts and relations with Russia (where he was superhawk one day and superdove the next); shameless pandering on a gas-tax holiday that even his own economic advisers think is a joke; confused handling of Social Security that annoys all sides of the debate; bogus charges (e.g., Obama is causing high gas prices, Obama didn't visit wounded soldiers because he couldn't take the press) that undermine his integrity; and an angry, bunker mentality among aides that one GOP operative, fearing excommunication from Team McCain if identified, describes as "lacking only a Luger and a cyanide pill."

Victory for McCain would hardly prove redemptive. "You can't govern winning this way," Weaver says. "We've seen that after the last two elections." And defeat would leave John McCain feeling more than the usual depression, wondering why he mortgaged his precious personal honor just to trade up to the White House.