During John McCain's particularly erratic last couple of weeks, he turned into a 21st century Che Guevara, lashing out at Wall Street greed and falling just short of denouncing internationalist plutocrats. This newfound populism is so off the wall that even the Wall Street Journal has given up on him. In truth, McCain IS angry, not so much about the assumed economic disaster just right around the corner, but that he did not see it coming. And in that sense, he surely knows to blame himself for his acknowledged lack of financial understanding, and his stubborn insistence that the economy is fundamentally strong. McCain is a 26-year veteran of Congress, a man who married his way out of middle-class economic woes and now enjoys 8 homes, 13 cars, 1 plane, and access to a 9-figure fortune. We are not mad at him for that, or even for not being able to relate, but clearly he is mad at himself now that he realizes what his financial complacency has wrought: an imploding campaign whose best hope appears to rest on getting a single one of Maine's electoral college votes.
McCain's temperament has been an issue in Washington for decades, and must have been before then too. In recent weeks, it has taken many forms: against the media in general, and specific outlets in particular; against Barack Obama; against Congress; against the world. The causes are understandable: Obama is above 50% for the first time in national polling (and is the first Democrat in decades to achieve this feat); McCain's popularity is tanking; swing state after swing state (and a Republican one here and there too) is swinging to the Democrat; Obama is fundraising and outspending him into oblivion; conservatives are once again turning against McCain; his VP pick would be the laughing stock of most of the country (minus some creepy conservative guys who are openly turned on by her), were it not for her chilling ties to terrorist Alaskan secessionists and her fundamentalist views on rape and abortion. This is more than enough to make anyone angry, but even the slightest self-awareness, which McCain may possess (as opposed to, say, George W. Bush), tells him that there is only one person accountable for this mess: himself. And he is surely angry about that: angry that he could not make himself overnight into a decent manager; angry that his impetuousness has gotten the best of him for the hundredth time; angry that he can't help but lie; angry that he has lost his magic touch with the media; angry that he is so out of touch with the country; angry that he has not come up with a new idea in a decade; and angry that he is once again letting a younger alpha male dominate him.
McCain thought he had learned a valuable lesson from his defeat at the hands of Bush in the 2000 GOP presidential primary: the meaner candidate wins. Thus he has allowed his natural fury to take its course, letting his mean streak increasingly show at random moments (a debate here, an interview there, a limp handshake elsewhere). He has also let his Rovian pack of pitbulls, now including Palin, go at Obama, with more and worse to come in the closing weeks of the campaign. Time will tell how successful that will be, but for now he is trailing Obama by more than any other Republican at this stage in many years. McCain is so inflexible that he has failed so far to grasp both the mood of the country, and that his opponent is not Bush. He still does not seem to realize that he has been knocked down by Obama's poise, not the Democrat's nastiness. Obama has been consistent in his message, mostly unswerving in his positions and, most importantly, level-headed in a crisis. McCain has responded with acerbity, unpredictability, breathtaking fabrications and a fly-by-night campaign that has been a painful (or enjoyable, depending on where you stand) contrast with his younger opponent's. Not only has the ever-changing McCain "strategy" failed to bring down Obama's popularity, it has enhanced it by making him a more acceptable presidential choice to wavering voters. It has also thrown McCain's numbers into the doldrums, to the point where even many Republicans do not see a path to victory for their candidate.
Conventional wisdom is that Palin's debate performance has stanched the bleeding. This, of course, is the same wisdom that decreed the previous debate a "draw" when it was a turning point in the campaign in favor of Obama. In fact, Palin continues to drag down McCain, reinforcing the perception of irresponsibility and incompetence, so obviously canned are her scripted efforts and so uninformed and inarticulate are her unscripted ones. The very last thing Americans are looking for right now is a team of inept, self-styled "mavericks." Did anyone else notice how during both debates, whenever McCain and Palin mentioned the word the approval tracking (at least on CNN) dipped steeply? In fact, the Obama campaign should use the "m word" freely to describe its opponents: it can only benefit the Democratic candidate.
McCain's dreadful management of his campaign is not only bringing down his own ticket, it is having a poisonous effect on Congressional races, so much so that it is becoming increasingly likely that Democrats could reach 60 seats in the new Senate. McCain's frenzied approach to the financial crisis stains all Republican candidates, a stark reminder that their party has been in charge of what passes for an economic policy for the past eight years. Regardless of the GOP's responsibility for the current recession, there is no doubt that the party in charge is to blame for the need to bailout Wall Street: after all, if the crisis is bad enough that the government must step in now, the financial industry was surely ripe for public intervention a long time ago. You cannot pretend the government is the problem, as the GOP does, and then suddenly decide that it (and therefore taxpaying voters) is to come to the rescue when things spin out of countrol, without paying an electoral price.
There is an insanely desperate element to the current Republican campaigns for president and for the Congress. It is as if McCain's own madness is trickling down to every corner of every race in the country, even in the reddest parts of Georgia, Indiana, or Colorado, for instance. The raw anger displayed by McCain, seconded by Palin who is not adept at saying lines she doesn't fully understand, is so over the top that he cannot seriously be targeting it at anyone but himself and perhaps the Republican party he has grown to hate, first for rejecting him, then for embracing him reluctantly and exacting the price of his own shoddy soul. Perhaps unconsciously, McCain is finally sabotaging his own bid and that of every other Republican in the land, one true, final gesture of eccentricity. For even the stubborn old coot must know, as George Will (our new best friend) recently said: "We don't elect angry presidents and John McCain looks very angry at the moment."