It's a good thing for the Democrats that their almost-nominee is a smart guy who's proven he can run a smart campaign. Because John McCain is making all the smart moves he needs to right now.
First of all, McCain is distancing himself from an extremely unpopular president in just the areas that make the most political sense for him. The public at large is concerned about global warming, so McCain addresses the issue with strong words. The public at large wants an end to the Iraq War, so McCain, who knows his unwavering support for it could cost him votes, now says we can win and be out of Iraq by the end of his potential first term. Placing his goal at a point halfway between "too hasty" and "never," McCain nails the rhetorically perfect length of time.
He also criticizes the Bush-Cheney drive towards an omnipotent presidency, declaring, "The powers of the presidency are rightly checked by the other branches of government." This is another safe position to take, given Bush's unpopularity and the fact that Americans have the phrase "checks and balances" imprinted into their consciousness from childhood.
Having gone against some right-wing positions, such as on immigration, McCain keeps the focus on areas where he's on safer ground, like pledging to appoint strict constructionist judges. This position strikes many on the left as extremist, but it isn't going to cost McCain any votes; both the radical-religious wing and the libertarian/business wing of the Republican Party can get behind it, while the idiot/bigot wing – one that encompasses Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, to be sure – probably doesn't care about it one way or the other.
McCain and his people have handled an incipient “preacher problem” in just the right way – by more or less ignoring it. He also hasn’t felt the need to address his pandering to the extremist Christian Right after having earlier taken a much more humane, distanced position from them.
The fact that his new Iraq War prediction represent yet another enormous flip-flop cannot have escaped his handlers, but on that issue, in the face of vast public discontent, he had to risk it. And he’ll probably get away with it, too. Who cares, now, that months ago McCain lambasted any primary opponent who dared to suggest a “timetable”? The public is focused on now and the near future. The next President will have to start getting us out of Iraq somehow, everyone knows it, and McCain has got to come up with a plan. Mentioning some dates, though, isn’t a plan. We’ve yet to learn how he intends to meet such goals.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for the answers. McCain may speak with the inflections of a “straight-shooter,” but he’s as cynical and conniving a political animal as any of them, and better at it than most. Democrats, however, are holding their breaths, waiting to see if their guy – very promising so far, but still young and relatively green – will turn out to be just as tough a bastard as McCain – or if he’s going to reveal a glass jaw.