I felt as though I were in a time machine as I listened to John McCain's aides detail how to run against Barack Obama. I could have been on the phone with Bush aides in 2000 talking about McCain: He survives on the strength of his rhetoric; the press that follows him each day doesn't challenge him but serves merely to record his historic rise; the standards of coverage for the two candidates are different.
Tuesday brought more frustration for Team McCain. A carefully planned two-week rollout of the candidate's energy plan was in danger before he'd given the kickoff speech. The message was supposed to be that McCain was offering a multifaceted plan to wean the United States off foreign oil. Among his proposals was an unartful call to end the federal ban on offshore drilling—a reversal of his position in 2000. But instead of talking about biofuels and hydroelectric cars, the campaign found itself fighting charges of flip-flopping opportunism.
The wobbly start of the GOP candidate's push on energy raised the possibility that the whole thing might topple—just like his previous efforts to get voters to compare him and Barack Obama side by side. Earlier this month, campaign aides tried having McCain deliver a speech on the night when Obama clinched the nomination. It was a disaster. A funky green background, a small crowd, and a weak delivery buried McCain's argument that he has a record of reform and leadership where Obama just has promises. Then the campaign suggested a series of 10 town halls to put the two men onstage together. The more free-flowing format was supposed to play to McCain's strength of talking off the cuff. Obama, recognizing this, has accepted only a watered-down set of appearances. It looks as if none of it's going to happen.
The energy plan was supposed to showcase both McCain's boldness in facing hard problems and his party-challenging, solutions-oriented approach. An ad released along with the kickoff speech heralded the fight McCain had with his party five years ago over whether to confront the challenges of global warming. (Did I mention that today was supposed to be about being bold?) Instead, critics won ammunition for a line of attack they've been pushing for the last year and a half. "I think John McCain has exhibited the ongoing debate in his own campaign between John McCain and John McCain," said John Kerry, no doubt relishing the chance to tar a Republican with the brush that killed him. "You don't know what he means on torture, taxes, tolerance of Jerry Falwell, changed on drilling. … Here you have a flip-flop by John McCain, flipping to the right and then flipping backward."
Whether this bungled start does sustained damage depends on the durability of McCain's Straight Talk brand. Though his aides admit the rollout isn't going as planned, they think the Arizona senator can risk taking a hit on flip-flopping. Voters can be convinced that drilling is the only medium-term solution, and with 80 percent of respondents in a recent Washington Post/ABC poll saying gas prices worry them, they may care less about his flip-flopping than about lowering even the current price of oil. Plus, Obama recently (and accidentally) said that higher oil prices wouldn't bother him if they came about slowly. So, McCain gets to paint his opponent as being out of touch with the woes of regular folks. This should help McCain make up a 16-point deficit in polls showing that people trust Obama more on the economy.
There's a risk here, too, though: John Kerry reeled off a pretty good list of McCain reversals. You can add McCain's evolution on issues like the estate tax—or the snafus that come from his fatigue, his light familiarity with new policy details, and the probability that when you talk all day long to reporters, you're going to slip up sometimes. At some point, the list of slip-sliding becomes too long for voters. They'll no longer buy the argument that they should overlook McCain's inconsistencies because they can trust him in the end to do the principled and honest thing. Voters consistently tell pollsters they want change, which means they want politicians who do business differently. People may not stick around long enough to hear McCain's energy-plan details if Barack Obama can make his opponent's drilling proposal look like a business-as-usual sop to oil companies.
Do McCain's aides have the capacity to recognize this tipping point? They're still going through the emotions (grief, anger, acceptance) associated with receiving tougher press coverage and losing the favored-candidate status they had in the last race. Plus, the charge that McCain is a party hack simply leaves them dumbfounded. To counter Kerry's bill of particulars, they offer a list of cases in which McCain has risked genuine anger from his party. These include his positions on confirming judges, immigration, global warming, and interrogating terrorists, as well as early criticism of Donald Rumsfeld and the way the Iraq war was managed. McCain's staffers are right that if the choice is a question of who has risked more in his own party—and therefore might do so as president—McCain has the strong advantage.
What should McCain do to fix the problem he created for himself today? McCain's best argument may be that contradictions and reversals are necessary byproducts of attempts to get things done in changing circumstances. Obama doesn't have any blemishes, they'll argue, because he's never tried anything hard. Finding solutions is harder than merely minting rhetoric, said one McCain aide—echoing, almost exactly, a line from Hillary Clinton's campaign. That echo may be the best bet for now. He can't change the positions he's already modified, and if he really believes that offshore drilling is the only medium-term solution, then he wouldn't want to. He can't change himself—he's going to keep talking, and that will mean gaffes and policy contradictions. Cut him off from the press, and, well, he wouldn't be McCain any more.