Correction Appended: October 18, 2007
There is only one American politician who sounds like this: "With my usual suicidal, masochistic tendencies, I spoke at the Detroit Economic Club last week and supported increased fuel-efficiency standards." Yes, yes, it's John McCain, rising from the crypt, but not as a zombie. The foolishly conventional Republican McCain of last year was the zombie. No, this is the funny, free-range McCain reincarnated, the independent who dares speak to an environmental forum in New Hampshire, touting his green credentials, actually supporting a return to the Kyoto global-warming negotiations, which is anathema to most Republicans. That guy the interesting one is back.
I am not suggesting that John McCain is a plausible front-runner for the Republican nomination. Republicans tend not to like people like McCain: too wild, too willing to work with Senators like Ted Kennedy (gasp!) and Russ Feingold (gulp!) on legislation. Then again, what are the options? There is no plausible front-runner. Each of the Republicans is flawed and flailing. The despair and hilarity as the various candidates try to squeeze into the conservative base's straitjacket, like the stepsisters struggling to fit into Cinderella's slipper, have been the gaudiest political show of 2007.
To review the bidding on the leading candidates: Rudy Giuliani, the national front-runner in the polls, supports abortion rights, supported gun control, supported Democrat Mario Cuomo for Governor, moved in with a gay couple when his second marriage fell apart and, pause for breath, well, isn't that enough? Mitt Romney, the front-runner in Iowa and New Hampshire, was a liberal when he ran for the Senate from Massachusetts and a moderate when he ran for Governor. He has disavowed his former positions on abortion, gay rights and now seems even to disavow the groundbreaking state health care plan he passed. Asked in a recent debate if he'd seek congressional authorization to take out Iran's nuclear facilities, he responded, "Well, you sit down with your attorneys..." For a Republican, that's something like a Democrat saying, "Well, maybe we should overturn Roe v. Wade and turn abortion over to the states." Also, he is a Mormon, which many religious conservatives consider a cult. Fred Thompson seems to be performing a quarter-hearted presidential-campaign drop-by, living proof that not all actors can play charming. He's another divorcÚ, and was once, among other things, a lobbyist for the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association.
Given the embarrassing contortions being performed by the three leading candidates, John McCain almost seems comfortable in his apostasy. His attempt to run bland in 2008, an echo of the 2000 edition of George W. Bush, cratered ignominiously. It was, in part, attributable to McCain's executive ineptitude; when it came to spending, his consultants were as prudent as the pork-peddling legislators he likes to deride. But there was a substantive reason for his failure: his support for a comprehensive immigration bill the one he co-sponsored with Ted Kennedy that would provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million immigrants here illegally. "I got the message," he told a town meeting in Hopkinton, N.H. "Americans want the border secure. I will secure it." Which seemed to satisfy most of the audience.
A day earlier, McCain had been confronted by a woman who upbraided him for not being a "real" Republican because of his dealings with Kennedy and Feingold. "I reminded her about Ronald Reagan standing in the Rose Garden with Tip O'Neill, a liberal Democrat, pledging to fix Social Security," McCain told me later, with some satisfaction. "Even a real Republican needs to work with Democrats if you're going to tackle things like Social Security." McCain remains the rare Republican candidate who has attempted bipartisanship in Washington. But that doesn't mean he isn't stone conservative on most things. He has always been pro-life; he is relentlessly antitax. His brimstone bellicosity about the war in Iraq is unmatched by any of his fellow candidates and unwarranted by reality. McCain's use of words like victory and surrender indicates a stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge the complexities of the Mesopotamian quagmire.
He is not a likely nominee because many Republicans, of all stripes, tend to believe he "ran against the party" in 2000, as a prominent Republican told me. Indeed, McCain won the New Hampshire and Michigan contests with the help of Democrats and Independents who crossed over to support him. Those votes won't be so available this time. But it is wonderful to have McCain, the old suicidal, masochistic McCain, back roiling the waters.
The original version of this article incorrectly stated that presidential candidate Mitt Romney has "disavowed his former positions on... gay marriage." In fact, while Romney had famously said in 1994 that he would be a more effective advocate for gay rights than his opponent, Ted Kennedy, he has never supported gay marriage.