In a press release last month, Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign touted various media reports, like this one from the Los Angeles Times, spotlighting his environmental policies: “Distancing himself from President Bush, John McCain pledged a new era of environmental stewardship Monday as he outlined his plan to address global warming, a cause he has embraced since activists hounded him during his 2000 run for president.” This week, however, McCain infuriated environmental groups by reversing his opposition to off-shore oil drilling and tying himself to President Bush, who promptly called on Congress to lift the drilling ban.

The McCain campaign has expended tremendous resources on the global warming issue—it organized a “green” tour in May, and has just released a new ad highlighting the candidate’s position on the issue. From his campaign’s perspective, the issue is a way to show McCain’s independence from President Bush while simultaneously signaling sympathy for Americans who are struggling to fill their gas tanks.

McCain’s wholesale abandonment of a month-long environmental PR strategy is more than a knee-jerk response to a new peak in oil prices. It is a sign that the McCain campaign’s efforts to define the 2008 election narrative are in disarray. Oddly, the political press—which has a Midas touch for turning policy disputes into process stories—seems to have missed the full political significance of this policy shift.

On June 3, the night Obama clinched the Democratic nomination, McCain attempted to hijack the news cycle by making the first speech of the evening. McCain’s speech failed to frame the election, in large part because his torpid delivery won boos from all quarters of the press. (Conservative commentator William Kristol said McCain appeared to be “sniping” at Obama.) But it also failed because events were pushing the election more and more towards the economy, a subject which Obama has especially emphasized. The economy has been a liability for McCain since the primaries, when he infamously admitted to not being “well-versed” on the issue. Increasingly, Americans are telling pollsters that the economy is of greater concern than the war in Iraq. The economic debate in Washington has also hurt McCain, as he has been forced to toe the GOP party line in showdowns over legislation to bail out homeowners and channel more funding to veterans’ assistance.

The Washington Post story on McCain’s announcement exemplified how the press failed to fully register what was at work. The Post began by saying McCain’s “move is aimed at easing voter anger over rising energy prices” and that the reversal of his previous drilling position earned him “the ire of environmental groups that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has courted for months.” (Indeed, McCain seemed to be intentionally inviting attacks of hypocrisy from environmental groups by announcing this initiative—at a meeting of Houston business interests, no less—the same week he launched his new global warming ad.)

But the Post stopped short of addressing the obvious strategy question raised by McCain’s reversal: Why abandon the weeks-long effort to build up his environmental profile and use that issue to distance himself from President Bush? Pollsters like Mike Bocian, of the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, suggest that this move, like McCain’s earlier proposal to suspend the gas tax, is a sign that he is “grasping at straws” to find a way to talk to voters about the economy. “He’s struggling to talk to voters on the economy … and talking in a way that, from a policy perspective, that is totally incoherent,” Bocian told me.

Perhaps the press should have been asking if McCain is so far on the defensive on voters’ top issue—so hamstrung by the GOP party line—that he is trading his maverick credentials for an economic proposal that might connect with voters and still wash with Republican interests.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.