I’m more partial to the idea that McCain has always been an opportunist, and that the wild swings in his positions — smothered in paeans to service and honor — had come to look to some like an honest man’s willingness to break with the party.
Count me on Beutler’s side. The obvious interpretation of McCain’s observed behavior pattern is that McCain’s “maverick” behavior was simply one aspect of his overwhelming narcissism. He was “above” party loyalty in the same way that he was “above” the UCMJ and the Seventh Commandment and the taboo on telling dirty jokes directed at the wives and daughters of your political opponents: those are rules that apply to other people, not to Admiral McCain’s son.
If it makes Richard Cohen feel better to believe that there used to be a public-spirited, honest man named John Sidney McCain III who has now been corrupted by “the taste for offices,” I have no wish to disturb him in that thought. What does worry me is the analysis I heard from a very smart conservative friend last weekend: he believes that McCain 2.0, the Maverick [the 1995 release] is the “real” John McCain. On this account, McCain 1.0 [1982-1994], the Reaganoid true believer, was something the man outgrew, while McCain 3.0 [2005-2008], the wingnut disciple of Rove, is just a pose. On this account, after the election the “real” John McCain will take a shower, apologize (he’s always been a good apologizer) and emerge to run the country in an honest and bi-partisan fashion.
That sounds to me like wishful thinking, but there seems to be a bunch of it out there, and of course no observation made between now and the election could possibly refute it.