A no-good, very bad week

John McCain’s campaign has stumbled mightily

You can forgive John McCain if he seems a bit grumpy lately – you would be too, if your chance at the White House seemed to be imploding around you. Repeatedly, the Arizona senator and his campaign have bumbled away any advantage he may have had from locking up his party’s nomination before Barack Obama. Now consistently trailing in the polls, things are looking grim for McCain. Of course, a year ago his primary campaign was on life support, so time will tell if the senator has another miracle comeback in the bag. This time, however, he doesn’t have the advantage of weak competition.

This Opinions page has thoroughly covered the political developments in Iraq over the past few weeks. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government have endorsed Barack Obama’s plan for a 16-month troop withdrawal timetable. McCain, of course, has long opposed such a plan, favoring eternal occupation. Now boxed in by both Obama and Maliki, McCain has tried to have it both ways. In a CNN interview, McCain even called Maliki’s 16-month plan “a pretty good timetable.” McCain’s central argument for the presidency has long been his superior judgment in Iraq, so tacitly endorsing his opponent’s plan puts him in a tough spot.

Time and time again, McCain’s poorly thought out policies have boxed him in a corner. Strangely enough, he continues to hammer away on his laughable idea for a gas tax holiday, and criticizing Obama for calling it a gimmick. Which, of course, it is. On Sunday, ABC host George Stephanopoulos asked McCain how he would get the oil companies to pass savings along to the consumer (something every decent economist says would not happen). McCain’s answer: “We would make them shamed into it.” That’s his whole plan – to make the oil companies feel just terrible about their profits. Perhaps McCain knows the necessary Jedi mind tricks to make that happen, but I doubt it.

Meanwhile, Obama has spent his time touring the world, giving speeches in front of massive crowds and rubbing shoulders with international leaders. Desperate for attention, McCain’s campaign has been scrambling for a response. Initially, they tried to complain that the media gave Obama’s trip too much attention. When that didn’t fly, they cooked up a patently false ad claiming that Obama snubbed injured troops because he wouldn’t be allowed to bring cameras. No matter that the accusation just isn’t true – it gets to the core problem with McCain’s presidential bid. Quite simply, this election isn’t about McCain at all. It’s about Obama, and McCain has done nothing to change that.

McCain lacks a focused, coherent domestic agenda. If he can no longer rely on the Iraq War to draw a contrast between himself and Obama, McCain will be forced to fight this campaign over domestic issues. If that’s the case, McCain will lose. It’s easy to see when McCain gives a speech: on issues of war, he seems comfortable and confident. But when he has to talk about the economy or education, he seems confused, unsure, bored and lost. That’s no way to make up ground against an opponent like Obama.

John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]