McCain vs. the man in the mirror

Salena Zito

4/22/2007 12:00:20 AM - Salena Zito

When he looks in the mirror at the man staring back, the first thought in John McCain’s mind must be one of frustration.

His greatest strengths have always been his ability to be a straight-shooter and a maverick. Now, in a race for his political life, the man he has always been is waging a war against himself.

When George W. Bush was popular, McCain was busy charting his own course, which often hurt him with the Republican base. And McCain knew it.

So, as the 2008 presidential election drew nearer and he started planning his own campaign, McCain tried something new: Instead of fighting Bush, he began to support him. He recruited many of Bush’s operatives; the Bush Texas Rangers, the Swift Boaters and other key contributors also jumped on board.

Gradually, McCain became the heir apparent.

Then the war in Iraq began to go terribly wrong. The situation on the ground grew worse and the media began referring to the insurgency and infighting as civil war. Americans became increasingly of the opinion that the war should never have been fought and might not be won.

On Election Day 2006, America expressed its enormous frustration and clear desire to find a way out of Iraq. It delivered both houses of Congress to Democrats.

Now, McCain had a real problem. He was George W. Bush’s biggest Iraq cheerleader; he was surrounded by Bush loyalists and Bush contributors.

John McCain became trapped by John McCain.

But instead of seeing -- and stating -- what is so obvious to so many, McCain has chosen to ignore it. He remains Bush's biggest advocate in the war; he has supported the president's call for more troops; he even went to Iraq and said it was safer than most big cities in America.

And it was perhaps at that moment that the transformation was complete: The maverick became a lap dog. The fabled political truth-teller now can’t tell the truth, even when it is obvious to anyone paying even a tiny bit of attention, even when it has become painfully obvious to most Republicans.

The Republican Party is tired of George W. Bush, his stubbornness and his war that cost it control of Congress. Its primary voters are looking for a change; it wants someone who does not remind voters of Bush, someone who does not share his stubbornness and optimism about a war that costs America more lives each week.

It wants someone who can acknowledge the obvious and lead the party forward.

Right now, the party is looking past McCain for leadership and straight talk; it sees too many similarities between Bush and McCain. Both are stubborn to a fault, a character flaw that has led them to the same policy course in Iraq.

The electorate is begging for a new style and a new face for the Republican Party, which is why the near-entry of former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee has picked up so much energy.

Thompson’s appeal is driven not so much by what he will do and who he is, but by what he won’t do and what he is not. It doesn't hurt that Thompson is a card-carrying conservative whose blunt style and dynamic personality just may be the right gravitas to soothe wounded conservatives.

The biggest area where McCain has strategically mishandled his political objectives is in relation to the war in Iraq. His problem is crystal clear: Voters are no longer buying what George W. Bush and John McCain are selling; simply put, they don't want to be fooled again.

So when McCain looks in the mirror, whose reflection does he see?