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McCain’s Problem: McCain

John McCain is shouldering many burdens. The GOP is very unpopular. President Bush is very unpopular. The war in Iraq is unpopular. The economy is unpopular. And he has to contend with a person from his recent past who is making his life as a presidential candidate more difficult. That person from his recent past is John McCain. Call him McCain I, and the presidential candidate McCain 2.

McCain 2 finally has an issue on which he can outflank Barack Obama on multiple fronts — as a populist, as someone with an answer to a key economic problem, as a national-security matter. That issue is oil. The Democratic Party is trying to turn the jump in oil prices into an anti-corporate and anti-Bush matter, but that is not likely to work the longer oil prices remain high because of increasing world-wide demand and the weakness of the dollar. Even voters inclined to conspiracy theorizing won’t long accept the notion that the spike in oil prices is due to nefarious boardroom dealing. McCain 2 has been receiving the best advice of his campaign — to advocate an immediate and dramatic increase in American efforts to harvest oil from domestic reserves offshore and in Alaska, and to offer incentives for the building of new refineries to turn the crude into usable gasoline. This is not an option open to Democrats because of the central importance of the environmental movement to the party’s base.

So McCain 2 makes a big speech about offshore oil drilling and the need for it. Fine. But the message is muted and confused. Why? Because McCain 1 voted against oil exploration and field development in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, and McCain 2 doesn’t want to look like a flip-flopper by changing his stand on the matter.

That’s the safe play. But it steps on McCain 2′s message in a very damaging way. If it is vital to drill offshore to do something about the oil crisis, then it can be no less vital to do so in ANWR — in fact, it is surely more vital to do so in ANWR, as it is far easier to extract the stuff from the ground than it is from the depths of the ocean floor. And, ironically, more environmentally sound as well.

And here’s the (even deeper) irony. McCain 1 didn’t vote against ANWR out of some deep environmentalist principle. He did so to show his concern for the environment, as a public-piety display. And, I suspect, he did it to give a special zetz to former oilman George W. Bush, who had made drilling in ANWR the centerpiece of an energy policy that really doesn’t look as foolish right now in 2008 as it did to many back in 2001 and 2002. McCain 1 was still furious over his loss in the 2000 presidential nomination contest.

So, in acting out of a combination of holier-than-thou piety and political pique, McCain 1 has made it all but impossible for McCain 2 to run with this issue and go on the offensive with Obama on a matter of central concern to the American people.