Thursday, July 03, 2008

The True Test for McCain

As a Karl Rove protégé takes charge of his faltering campaign, a character question comes up: Does John McCain have it in him to get into the mud to win ugly?

Repelled by Rovian tactics in 2000 to the point of openly considering switching parties, McCain is clearly under pressure now to sign on to smearing Obama with the kind of dirt that did him in back then and the Swiftboating of John Kerry that he deplored in 2004.

Up to now, McCain has been willing to shift positions on issues to mollify the Republican Right and win the nomination but he clearly drew a line at personal attacks on his rivals in the primaries.

Now, amid all the talk about sharpening his message, the Republican standard bearer faces a different reality: With all the baggage of the Bush years, there is very little likelihood that McCain can win this election on policy issues, no matter how adroitly he frames them, and adroit has been in short supply so far.

The only way he can hope to prevail is by turning away from his lifetime dedication to personal honor and allow his campaign to sow the kind of fear and doubt about Obama that was used against him in South Carolina eight years ago.

Can a man in his seventies change that much? Along the way, McCain may want to consider the rueful wisdom of Adlai Stevenson, who lost the presidency twice half a century ago: "The hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning."

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