Let McCain be McCain, up to a point

Peggy Noonan argues that John McCain needs to be himself, his old self — the one who charmed the boys on the bus in 2000. Noonan may overestimate the extent to which McCain can match that charm in the context of a race in which the opponent is Barack Obama, not George Bush. Nonetheless, I think her prescription is correct. As I keep saying, McCain cannot win this year unless his “brand” remains intact, and that brand depends on McCain “being himself.”

Noonan also argues that McCain will surge in the polls as the race draws to a close and “America look[s] up and see[s] the inevitability of Mr. Obama. . .and America say[s], ‘Hey, wait a second, are we sure we want that?'” Here too, I think Noonan is spot on. This phenomenon consistently occurs when an inexperienced outsider challenges a more known commodity. It happened to Carter in 1976, to Clinton in 1992, and to Bush in 2000. Only Bush was actually overtaken at the end, and he still managed to win in the electoral college.

Finally, Noonan suggests that McCain “has already got what he wanted, he got what he needed, which was to be top dog in the Republican Party, the party that had abused him in 2000 and cast him aside.” Thus, she worries that McCain doesn’t want the presidency badly enough, and may coast through the campaign.

Here, I think Noonan is wide of the mark. I see McCain as too ambitious and ornery to start coasting when he’s this close to the grand prize. His orneriness may be the more salient of the two qualities. The idea of losing to Obama will likely become increasingly unacceptable to McCain as familiarity breeds more and more contempt. In fact, my fear is less that McCain will coast than that he will lash out. In that limited sense, McCain is well advised not to be McCain.

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