ST. PAUL -- "I miss the old John McCain." It's a refrain I hear on a regular basis, most often from people who are Barack Obama voters no matter what. They yearn for the man who hated the same people that they hate -- or so they believed, when in 2000 he called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance."
That is, they yearn for a man who could not win.
"He is the same guy he has always been, wrestling with all the things he does trying to be the guy he believes he has to be," McCain speechwriter Mark Salter told the New York Times. "But we are not just going to say, 'O.K., we'll just lose -- we will lose graciously -- maybe everybody will remember him fondly.'"
True, the McCain who won the GOP primary has learned how to court religious conservatives. When Barack Obama courts religious voters, pundits praise him for boldly going where few Democrats have gone before. Yet, when McCain courts these voters, the pundits are disappointed that he has caved into his party's base.
But it is Obama, not McCain, who is in lockstep with his party's base. And with big-spending Democrats controlling the House and Senate, that's a scary prospect.
McCain has bucked his party's base: on immigration as recently as last year; on global warming; on campaign-finance reform.
Republicans nominated him even though they know that, if elected, he will drive them insane. He'll be too chummy with Democrats. They also know that, unlike the ousted GOP congressional leadership, he will fight pork-barrel spending. Most important, they trust that he'll do what must be done in Iraq and Afghanistan -- no matter what the polls say.
The Grand Old Party seems to be on the move. Wednesday night, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who moved from the center to the right before the 2008 GOP primary, threw red meat to the base. Delegates applauded Romney -- but not with the enthusiasm with which they greeted the pro-choice former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas governor, the down-home Mike Huckabee. Forget the country club; the new wave in party is Sam's Club Republicans, says Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Yes, the old John McCain opposed the Bush tax cuts. Now he pledges to keep them, in part because ending those cuts could do real damage to the American economy.
I get that. But I am disappointed in his proposals for a summer gas-tax holiday and to double the child tax-exemption to $7,000 -- even though the federal deficit is expected to reach $482 billion next year.
America got a peek at the fiscally conservative McCain in July, when, in discussing Social Security reform, he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he was "a supporter of sitting down together and putting everything on the table" -- presumably even a tax increase. After tax foes pounced, Camp McCain took a tax increase off the table.
This is a shame. No one wants to pay higher taxes, but you won't see Social Security reform without a package that includes both higher taxes and fewer benefits. McCain knows that.
Thursday night McCain pledged to "stop leaving our country's problems for some unluckier generation to fix." On that score, his speech was thin, and the campaign theme, "country first," rang hollow.
McCain told the crowd "to serve a cause greater than yourself." But without giving up the GOP tax cuts?
OK, on the stump he is no maverick.
But you've also seen what Fred Thompson called McCain's mixture of "rebellion and honor," when the maverick carried his own luggage on the campaign trail after the experts pronounced his campaign over. You saw it Thursday night, when he faulted both parties for overly large government.
As for the term "maverick," McCain noted, "What it really means is, I understand who I work for."