Josh Marshall had a series of posts up yesterday seeking a "Grand Unified Theory of McCain Crappiness." Some good points are made, but I think most of these posts wind up implicitly overstating the extent to which McCain was an effective politician at some point in the past and has only recently become crappy.
The reality is that he's been coasting for his entire political career, and his toughest race -- the 2000 GOP presidential primary -- was won where he lost badly. This feat of getting trounced by George W. Bush has somehow entered the collective imagination as an astounding political feat, but I'm willing to venture that it would actually be pretty easy for any vaguely plausible Senator or Governor to go up against the GOP frontrunner, imply that the party had become too right-wing, and lose the primary while winning a few contests in liberalish states with moderatish Republican Parties. McCain's 2000 campaign was appealing to liberals because it consisted of us watching a Republican talk smack about Republicans, comparing the conservative machine to the Death Star, pointing out that GOP tax policies serve only the interests of a tiny elite, etc. But as an electoral strategy this was perverse and the results were predictable.
This whole fiasco gained McCain "Maverick" status which he spent the next several years deploying quite cannily to "corner the market" on bipartisanship in the US Senate and turn himself into a very influential legislator. And, clearly, even though he comes off as utterly uncharismatic to us peons who have to watch him on television he's great at wooing the press in person. But this is his strong-suit -- he's a phenomenal Beltway player and operator, heir to a long line of skilled legislative players. But there's a huge difference between the kind of actions that appeal to the sensibilities of the press (breaking with your party, campaign finance reform, "straight talk," bashing Social Security) and the kind of actions that appeal to voters -- projecting empathy and outlining ideas that will make people's lives better.
On top of all that, McCain is currently facing the stark dilemma Reihan Salan points to of "keeping the Bush bundlers on side while also reaching out to working class voters" and I would say more generally the large majority of people who think Bush has been a terrible president. To win, McCain needs a coalition of basically everyone who still likes Bush (and he needs some of them to support him enthusiastically) plus almost a third of the normal anti-Bush people. That'd be hard for even the most charismatic of leaders to pull off.
Photo by Flickr user soggydan used under a Creative Commons license
Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.