John McCain is hitting the campaign trail, and he's doing so with a predictable thud.
On Monday, the ever-eager-to-settle-a-score senator appeared in South Carolina and pronounced Donald Rumsfeld one of the worst defense secretaries ever. He went on to elaborate, "We are paying a very heavy price for the mismanagement -- that's the kindest word I can give you -- of Donald Rumsfeld, of this war. The price is very, very heavy, and I regret it enormously."
Substantively, McCain's critique might not be entirely without merit. Still, his commentary bears the typical McCain signatures of being childishly hostile and simplistic.
In truth, Rumsfeld's management of the war in Iraq was magnificent. In three short weeks, Rumsfeld's Pentagon toppled a hostile regime that had menaced world peace for decades.
If Rumsfeld stumbled, it wasn't in managing the war but in managing the peace. After the three weeks that led to Saddam's fall, the American government collectively made several errors that have left a lasting mark on both our country and Iraq.
Yet it is not at all clear how many of these disastrous mistakes were part of Donald Rumsfeld's portfolio. Paul Bremer, the witless wannabe viceroy who implemented a ruinous "De-Baathification" policy that crippled Iraqi society, was part of Colin Powell's shop at Foggy Bottom.
Who the decider was that decided not to secure the Iranian and Syrian borders remains unclear, but there's little to suggest that Rumsfeld was the culprit.
Merits (or lack thereof) aside, McCain's broadside against Rumsfeld is politically ill-advised. If the Senator had for some perverse reason been hatching a plan to remind the Republican base of what a nuisance he's been the Last seven years, he could scarcely have executed a more effective maneuver.
As a man, John McCain almost universally has the respect of Republicans. His biography is unique and powerful. But my co-blogger Hugh Hewitt long ago coined the shorthand for Sen. McCain that defines him perfectly for most conservatives. In Hugh's formulation, John McCain is a great man, a bad Senator and an awful Republican.
Throughout the Bush administration, McCain has seemingly delighted in sticking his thumb in the GOP's collective eye whenever the chance has presented itself. At times, McCain's antics were merely maddening such as when the senator took obvious pleasure in grandstanding over Abu Ghraib.
At other times, the senator's actions did considerable damage. His midwifing of the campaign finance "reform" that bears his name, McCain/Feingold, brought unacceptable and (in the opinion of most conservatives) unconstitutional limits to political free speech.
There was always a nagging sense among Republicans that the senator devoted much of his time and energy to courting the praise of the media. The media loved McCain's bipartisan endeavors with the Senate's most liberal members; conservatives less so.
There may be something about suffering an electoral defeat at the hands of George W. Bush that drives the vanquished to have the politician's equivalent of an emotional breakdown.
Although it's hard to remember now, not too long ago Al Gore was routinely derided for being a boring, staid and utterly pedestrian politician. Only after losing to Bush did he become a ranting, bloated symbol of the angry left.
Before tangling with Bush, John Kerry was a cautious and soporific senator. After his defeat in 2004, Kerry has shown a strange determination to transform himself into an enduring punch line for late-night comics.
John McCain lost to George Bush in the 2000 primaries in an ugly and bitter race. The Bushies play political hardball, and they didn't go easy on McCain because he had an R after his name. Perhaps that explains why John McCain spent so much time over the last six years publicly antagonizing the Bush administration.
Regardless, McCain's shtick grew stale a long time ago for most Republicans. Although his friends in the media have universally hailed the Arizonan as the front-runner for the GOP nomination, McCain has never led Rudy Giuliani in any public opinion polls. The latest polls show Giuliani maintaining a comfortable double-digit lead over the putative front-runner.
Republican voters have a deserved reputation for handing their presidential nomination to the favorite.
For six years, John McCain has seemed oddly set upon causing the Republican electorate to revisit the wisdom of that habit. Only in the last couple of weeks has it begun to dawn on some members of the media that McCain isn't merely "doing poorly for a front-runner." Rather, McCain stopped being the front-runner a while ago.
It's particularly surprising to hear McCain resurrect his maverick straight-talk express at a time when his campaign is taking on water.
Even for Republicans who agree with the substance of McCain's comments on Rumsfeld, the comments will serve as a reminder of the childish contrarian streak that caused McCain to fall from their favor in the first place.