A couple of days ago, a few of us here were trying to figure out just how McCain came back from the dead, and we settled on the conclusion that he did it by being unbelievably lucky. Ross Douthat spells out that point with a bit more rigor:
[M]uch of what's happened to make McCain the presumptive nominee has been luck, pure and simple. He was lucky, to begin with, that George W. Bush lacked an heir apparent – no Jeb, no Condi, no Dick Cheney – who could unite the movement establishment against him. He was lucky that Mitt Romney was a Mormon. He was lucky that Fred Thompson, a candidate who might have succeeded in rallying both social and economic conservatives against his various heresies, was out-campaigned by Mike Huckabee, whose appeal was ultimately too sectarian to make him a threat. He was lucky that Rudy Giuliani ran an inutterably lousy campaign. (More on this anon.) He was lucky that Mike Huckabee won Iowa; lucky that the media basically treated that win as a McCain victory (though obviously his skill in cultivating the press made a big difference, in that case and many others); lucky, as David Freddoso suggests, that Huckabee decided to campaign in New Hampshire and (taking my foolish advice) Michigan instead of going straight to South Carolina; lucky that Giuliani decided not to campaign in New Hampshire after Christmas; and lucky, finally, that Fred Thompson decided to go all in against Huckabee in South Carolina, thus delivering McCain the Palmetto State and with it Florida. And he was lucky, above all, that his strongest challenger was a guy that almost nobody liked – not the media, not his fellow candidates, and not enough of the voters, in the end.
Even McCain’s initial collapse, under the weight of the immigration debate and his badly-managed campaign, looks fortunate in hindsight. The failure of comprehensive immigration reform gave him an excuse to tweak his position on the issue and pose as having been chastened by the voters, without saddling him with an actual policy whose implementation he’d have to defend at every turn. Meanwhile, the loss of his front-runner status let him play the scrappy underdog again, a role that suits his personality far better than playing leader of the pack – and a role, as well, that allowed the media an excuse to warm to him again, after having been disappointed and disillusioned by his willingness to stick by George W. Bush in 2004 and after. I wonder, too, if a McCain who kept his front-runner status throughout the race could have withstood nine months of steady criticism, from Romney or Thompson or whomever, aimed at his extensive record as the Democratic Party’s favorite Republican. But as it was, none of his rivals took him all that seriously until late December – and by then it was too late.
Now if Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, then we'll know that Providence wants McCain in the White House.
I think that last point about Hillary is particularly important. There's a lot of griping that the press gives McCain a free ride, and I think that's true to an extent. But one reason I think reporters go easy on McCain--a reason different from this one--is that, by and large, they're covering him in the context of Republican primaries and caucuses. You don't have to think the press has a liberal bias per se to believe that one of the reasons they like McCain is that, unlike so many other GOP candidates, he's not outwardly hostile to the media. I mean, let's face it, it's not hard to be Mr. Charming vis a vis reporters when your competition is George W. Bush or Mitt Romney.
But how will the media treat McCain in a general election campaign? If he's running against Obama, I think McCain's advantage with the media evaporates--because, if anything, reporters are more enamored of Obama than they are of McCain. (Although Obama sure spends a lot less energy schmoozing them than McCain does.) The only way McCain keeps the media in his corner for the general election is if he's running against Clinton.