THE ‘REAL’ MCCAIN…. It’s been unnerving for quite a while to see apologists for John McCain rationalize his descent into a shameless partisan hack. To hear them tell it, there’s a real John McCain, and the one we’re watching isn’t really him.

For these observers, there are effectively two options: they were fooled into thinking McCain is a man of integrity and character, or the pathetic candidate has somehow been led astray by way of bad advice. Since the prior makes the observers look foolish, they tend to prefer the latter.

David Brooks has been leading the way for the “this isn’t really McCain” camp. He floated the argument in mid-August, and he returns to the issue today, insisting McCain is really a great guy with his head on straight, despite the way he’s conducted himself on the campaign trail. Indeed, to Brooks, it’s not even McCain’s fault — the “media-circus environment” pushed McCain into the realm of nonsense; he did not go willingly.

“[W]hen people try to tell me that the McCain on the campaign trail is the real McCain and the one who came before was fake, I just say, baloney,” Brooks insists. If only we’d elect him, and overlook the campaign, Brooks argues, McCain will be great. Really. Honest. Trust him.

In response, TNR’s John Judis, who tends to write with an unrivaled sobriety, concedes that he used to perceive McCain largely the way Brooks does. Indeed, Judis explains that he’s questioned McCain’s judgment, but never his motives.

That is, until recently, when Judis noticed that McCain “has shown a willingness to put the success of his campaign ahead of the country’s welfare.”

[I]t is simply unpatriotic — it’s an insult to flag, country, and all the things that McCain claims to hold dear — for McCain to hold this financial crisis hostage to his political ambitions. McCain doesn’t know a thing about finance and is no position to help work out an agreement. If we do suffer a serious bank run, or a run on the dollar, it can be laid directly at his feet. As I said to friends last night, if McCain had been president at this point, I would have wanted to impeach him.

That brings me back to David Brooks’ column. David thinks that beneath the surface of McCain the craven campaigner, that the man who nominated an ill-prepared Sarah Palin as his possible successor and has lent his energies to blocking a financial bailout, there still sits a “real McCain” who could govern fairly and effectively as president. I doubt it. I really doubt it. Whether because of age or overreaching ambition, McCain has become the kind of man he earlier railed against. He has become the Bush of 2000 against whom he campaigned or the Senate and House Republicans whom he despised. His defeat is now imperative.

Those who put country last, as McCain clearly does, have no business even trying to lead. The sooner his apologists realize this, the better off we’ll all be.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.