THE WRONG MESSAGE AT THE WRONG TIME…. In recent years, when asked to reflect on his role in the Keating Five scandal, John McCain has consistently been contrite and willing to accept responsibility for his mistakes. “The appearance of it was wrong,” McCain once famously acknowledged. “It’s a wrong appearance when a group of senators appear in a meeting with a group of regulators, because it conveys the impression of undue and improper influence. And it was the wrong thing to do.”

Today, the McCain campaign took an entirely different tack.

McCain attorney John Dowd attempts to set the record straight on McCain and the Keating Five scandal in a media call.

Describes his former relationship with Charles Keating as “social friends,” calls situation a “classic political smear job on John.”

Thinks that the committee went too far in suggesting that McCain’s intervention with regulators was poor judgment.

The McCain campaign really hasn’t thought this one through. While the scandal was still fresh, McCain cooperated with investigators, acknowledged his mistakes, and accepted his formal rebuke. He took his lumps and vowed to do better in the future.

But this message is the complete opposite of what McCain has said for years. As Aravosis explained, “This opens up the entire question of McCain’s supposed contrition. If McCain thinks he did nothing wrong, and that it was wrong for the Senate to scold him for his actions during the Keating Five Scandal, then he isn’t contrite at all, he isn’t sorry at all. He’s learned nothing.”

Ben Smith appreciates this striking shift.

I’d always thought McCain’s great strength in defending the Keating affair was that he’d acknowledged making a huge mistake, and spent his career repenting by recasting himself as a reformer.

So when his campaign puts his lawyer on the line with reporters to contest the details of a congressional inquiry that, largely, let McCain off the hook, doesn’t that cloud the sin-confession-atonement dynamic a bit?

It does, indeed. When McCain conceded wrongdoing, he used it as a platform to begin supporting campaign-finance reform. It made him a “reformer.” But now, the new argument is that McCain was the victim here, and his years of contrition were a sham. This argument, in effect, turns nearly two decades of McCain arguments completely on their head.

It’s hard to believe, but the McCain campaign has deliberately made this a new story all over again, just when the Obama campaign wants it to be.

Steve Benen

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.