Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- For all their talk about respecting the constraints of reality, conservatives generally hold to the great man theory of history. It is leftists who embrace economic determinism. Conservatives read biographies of Winston Churchill and wait in constant expectation for the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Charisma and truth, in this view, can always overwhelm material conditions.

And this often leads to the small man theory of electoral setbacks. A losing Republican is not merely unfortunate; he must be incompetent, politically blind, and betrayed by his bumbling underlings. If he is not a winner, he is a fool.

John McCain has reached this stage of criticism among conservatives. Some attack him for "frenetic improvisation," while others urge him to frenetically improvise. His campaign is in a "defensive crouch" while also being "obnoxious" in its "phony populism." McCain's running mate is a "fatal cancer" who should "read more books."

This kind of cheap shot is, thank goodness, the prerogative of the commentator -- an option I will doubtlessly exercise in the future. But having once been on the political side of the divide, I remember how truly obnoxious such advice can become. If only the candidate would fire his entire campaign staff and travel the country in a used Yugo, speaking in the parking lots of 7-11s, the gap would be closed. If only the candidate would buy three hours in prime time and give a bold, historic speech (which has been helpfully sent under separate cover), the entire election would be turned around. If only the candidate would finally highlight his opponent's ties to Colombian drug cartels, the illuminati and the British royal family -- or perhaps abandon all this suicidal negativity -- the election could certainly be won. And yes, above all, the candidate must

be himself.

McCain might benefit from shifts in strategy: a retooled stump speech has already been rolled out. But sometimes a candidate down in the polls is not an incompetent but a bystander. While America remains a center-right country, this may well be a Marxist election in which economic realities are determining the political superstructure.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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