John McCain's 'madman theory'

"I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I've reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that, 'for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can't restrain him when he's angry -- and he has his hand on the nuclear button' -- and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."

-- H.R. Haldeman's 1978 The Ends of Power.

The Madman Theory did not die with Richard Nixon. It's alive and well and residing in the heart and mind of John McCain. It's too perfect -- it fits the character of McCain, the most compulsive gambler in American politics, and it fits the nature of his long-shot Hail Mary 2008 bid for the White House. McCain and his Bush-supplied strategists know they can't replace a 24-percent popular president by running on the issues, or even by running a conventional modern campaign of debates and rallies punctuated by a few well-chosen smear ads.

Nope, John McCain knows that the only way he can win this election is to act completely, one-flew-over-the-cookoo's-nest bat-guano crazy -- and to hope that the relatively untested Barack Obama is so rattled that he and the Democrats do something really stupid, and also that voters are so confused by and focused on his stunts there won't be a moment to reflect on Bush's legacy and what this election is really supposed to be all about.

Once you look at it through the prism of the "madman theory," McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his No. 2 appears brilliant. No one saw it coming (including the McCain campaign itself, which clearly didn't vet her) and the ensuing People magazine-fueled frenzy obscured any Obama post-convention bounce as well as McCain's own flat acceptance speech. Most importantly, the Democrats had no clue how to respond -- do they attack her or ignore her or what? -- and seemed to lose all momentum as they pondered the right answer. No matter that Palin is going all Miss South Carolina (soon she'll be talking about "Russia and such as") and flopping outside of the right-wing base, because McCain has already moved onto the next bout of insanity.

Indeed, the Palin uproar hadn't died down before the McCain campaign started running ads that weren't just over the top, but out and out untrue, accusing Obama of wanting to teach kindergartners about sex before they could read and even misquoting the fact checkers at Factcheck.org. Same dilemma -- how to respond to something like that? Does the media let the lies stand unchallenged, or go after McCain, allowing the GOP to say the pro-Obama media is slandering the POW and that nice Alaska mom?.

It all worked so beautifully -- until the final real-world meltdown of the Bush years threw McCain way off his stride.Which necessitated coming up with something more bodacious, and, frankly, more insane than anything he's come up with so far. Hence, this week's three-fer, suspending the campaign, dashing to Washington (it's a wonder he could still find the place), proposing to cancel tomorrow's big debate -- and challenging Obama to do the same. The political risk to McCain is huge -- already he's taking a hit on the debate issue, particularly -- but the potential downside to Obama is such as large.

Many have called it a Hail Mary pass, and that's exactly right. Teams only throw a Hail Mary pass when they'll lose if they run a conventional play -- there's a much greater chance of an interception, but a greater chance of a touchdown. Obama is a very by the book the candidate, and there's nothing in his book on how to respond to something like this. So far my sense is he's handled things OK, but he also looks reactive, responding to McCain, which is hard not to do when McCain is so manic.

Politically, the madman theory is probably the best McCain can do as he makes his last grasp for the brass ring of the American presidency. But for the American people he proposes to serve, the madman theory is a disaster -- it's already led to a clearly unqualified choice to be a 72-year-old heartbeat away from the presidency, and now McCain is mucking up the bailout negotiations beyond belief. What more proof do you need than the fact that a deal was close before the "Express Formerly Known as Straight Talk" landed inside the Beltway, and now it's not that close.

And do you honestly think we've seen the last episode here from "madman" McCain. The former Navy aviator may shoot down this whole thing, the ultimate maverick move, showing his independence from Bush and his willingness to act as a new-age Howard Beale for an angry electorate, even as your 401K and your ability to get a college loan are collateral damage. And what if this whole crazy theory works, and John McCain becomes our 44th president. Do you think it's easy to turn off "the madman theory," even as you deal with hot spots from Kabul to Tblisi.

McCain could have asked Richard Nixon. His bombing escalations over Southeast Asia, right up through Christmas of 1972, sure did imply to the world that he was a madman, but the evidence that it dramatically sped up the end of the war is slight. Meanwhile, the lunacy escalated right up through his 1972 campaign and the events that we now know as Watergate, a dangerous shredding of the Constitution that, in spite of its unhappy ending, seems to have inspired a couple of sequels.

America doesn't need another "madman" at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- not even in "theory."

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