McCain and Republicans: Still an uneasy union

There is the potent possibility that “Joe the Plumber” could save John McCain's campaign and lead him to victory on Nov. 4. But that now-famous plumber would have to stop what is looking like a flood of undecided voters choosing Barack Obama. It is grim enough that pre-mortems are already pouring in. And should Obama prevail on Election Day, McCain faces something more dreadful than losing the presidency — the Republican Party is going to savage him.

It began this week, a stampede among the conservative cognoscenti to get out in front, declaring that McCain can't and won't win, even including some heretical Obama endorsements (Christopher Buckley, Christopher Hitchens ) to boot. Previews of what is to come ensure that McCain will reach a new low of losers and John Kerry will surely look like a Democratic martyr by comparison.

Let's be honest here: Winning the nomination didn't elevate McCain among Republicans, or erase his status as the blackest of black sheep in the GOP family. Republicans would have a hard time with a McCain victory as well, so he truly can't win for losing. The unenviable fight to keep the White House for his party has been a steep uphill battle McCain has managed to keep surprisingly level, but he will be given no credit if he fails. There will be no loyalty, no sympathy and no thanks from Republicans. They never trusted him, never liked him. McCain has crossed them, tricked them, cursed at them and betrayed them with Democrats. He even dared, at one point, to hold conversations with Democrats about switching parties.

Now he's going to get everything they have saved up all these years. This time, having taken up the GOP cause — flipping on tax cuts, promising never to vote for or enact his own immigration bill, choosing the truest, purest conservative for a vice presidential nominee — McCain won't walk away his own man. Unlike in 2000, he won't be a hero to either side, least of all to himself.

Two camps in the GOP will brutalize him separately but simultaneously. One camp adores Sarah Palin and believes she is the party's future and greatest hope. The other camp believes the pick of Palin was the final, nakedly political and unwise straw that broke McCain's candidacy. Like Matthew Dowd, who said McCain put the country at risk with the choice, and David Brooks, who called her a “fatal cancer” for the party, those Republicans won't stop Palin-bashing until Valentine's Day.

Palin's fans will likely excoriate McCain for mishandling her. It will be his fault that she fell short of expectations. He will be blamed for sequestering her, then allowing her to be interviewed before she was ready with the wrong media outlets; for locking her up at his own ranch like a teenager who got grounded with coverage of her cramming sessions before her debate.

McCain's best hope for winning was to convincingly separate himself from President Bush, and his attempts to do so have come too late. Perhaps it was the Bushies he hired to run his campaign who wouldn't let him, perhaps it was because McCain just doesn't have the stomach for it, but whatever the reason there will be no pats on the back from conservatives for resisting the temptation to throw Bush under the bus.

Indeed, the all-tactics and no-strategy campaign will be remembered for ads featuring Paris Hilton and false claims called out by the likes of Karl Rove and Bill O'Reilly. The small-ball, the stunts, the flailing policy prescriptions for the economic crisis, the gimmicks, lack of focus and even composure, and the seething, angry debate performances will be McCain's mistakes. He won't be able to blame staff for talking him into diluting, and ultimately dissolving, his brand — and in effect, his entire identity. When Republicans criticize all of it, McCain will be furious at them. It will be less painful than aiming his fury at himself.