11/03/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How McCain Created a Referendum on McCain

Why do John McCain's daredevil stunts recall George Romney's mangled syntax, Edmund Muskie's teardrops in the snow or Bill Clinton's relentlessly roaming eye? These campaign phenomena were not gaffes, not aberrations, but revelations, confirming what many voters suspected. They were epiphanies of character.

McCain is the perpetual rebel, a Waldo Pepper defiantly pursuing his own flight path, a Wrong-Way Corrigan untethered by message control, slipping the surly bonds of the Karl Rove junior varsity. But his zig-zag course violates Nolan's First Law of Presidential Politics: decisiveness and discipline matter above all.

In 1968, Mitt Romney's father was an intelligent governor of Michigan who had rescued an auto company and seemed an attractive alternative to Richard Nixon. The English language, however, was never his forte. When he confessed that the Pentagon had "brainwashed" him in Vietnam, his political career ended.

In 1972, Sen. Muskie had a reputation for calm, but many in politics and journalism knew his ferocious temper, which caused him to lose his composure in New Hampshire as he complained about editorials in the Manchester Union-Leader.

In 1992, Clinton endangered his candidacy with what his staff called "bimbo eruptions." He survived, but no one claimed that his reputation in Arkansas was one of steadfast and constant fidelity. In 1998, the eruptions returned, this time endangering his presidency. Clinton again survived, but the stain will persist in the history books.

Romney later became an excellent secretary of HUD, Muskie became Secretary of State and Clinton has launched a global philanthropy. But these revealing episodes have been lost on McCain, who has run the least disciplined presidential campaign since that of his senatorial predecessor, Barry Goldwater, in 1964.

Throughout the later primaries and through the conventions, the campaign was essentially a referendum on the relatively young, largely unknown Barack Obama. Yes, George W. Bush had ruined the Republican brand and shrunk the party's base. But Obama's exotic background, professorial style and, of course, his pigmentation, made McCain's task less formidable.
How did he react? He shortened the Republican convention because of a hurricane, thus avoiding a visit to St. Paul by President Bush and Vice President Cheney. He introduced Hurricane Sarah, who energized the base, but antagonized many outside the base. McCain has stood by her with the fierce self-righteousness his Senate colleagues recognize. In a series of loops, McCain flew his Sopwith Camel under the Brooklyn Bridge, to the delight of some and the confusion of many.

The man who brags frequently about shunning Miss Congeniality awards is noted for his short fuse and disdain for others. Like other senators, he can be bipartisan, but his attitude is not collaborative. With characteristic certitude, he suggests that he and his acolytes are more pure and more patriotic than other senators. He rides the Straight Talk Express, dispatching lesser politicians to the Liar's Shuttle. While changing campaign finance laws, he reenacted Chapter 21 of St. Matthew, overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers and implying that the Senate was a den of thieves.

Which presidential candidate has a messiah complex? And which candidate knows the difference between tactics and strategy?

McCain deployed the ultimate stunt during the meltdown on Wall Street. He would suspend his campaign, he said, and not resume until the financial crisis ended. He might not attend the first presidential debate in Oxford, Mississippi Sept. 25, either. He later relented even though the crisis continued.

McCain visited Washington, where he had not voted since April 8, and suggested he would inject his leadership skills into the situation. At the White House, he said little, deferring to others. Amid the economic news, McCain dominated the political debate, which swirled about him. Would he show up in Oxford or not? Would he help resolve the crisis or not? Did his views differ from House conservatives or not?

McCain excels at changing the subject, but eventually a tactics-over-strategy pattern made him look indecisive and worse, ineffective. In the first House vote, neither Obama nor McCain persuaded home state colleagues to support a bailout bill. From Obama's Illinois, four of nine Democrats voted no. All four Republican representatives of McCain's Arizona voted no. McCain's series of stunts succeeded in making the election a referendum on his judgment. Early returns from polls in swing states are not encouraging.

On the night of October 1, when he voted with the Senate's 74-25 majority, the maverick meekly and mutely rejoined the herd; McCain did not join the floor debate. His flight path has returned him to his handlers, who may help him figure out how to blame the financial crisis on gay marriage, sex education or a paucity of flag pins.