SLOWLY COMING TO TERMS WITH THE ‘MAVERICK’…. Dana Milbank laments this morning, “I miss John McCain.” The Washington Post reporter even highlights the great times he shared with the Republican senator in 1999 — you know, 11 years ago — and explains why he’s made excuses for McCain’s radical departure from his previous personas.

I was an original McCainiac, riding with him in his SUV through the back roads of New Hampshire in ’99. Even as other McCaniacs drifted away, I tried to find excuses for him. When he endorsed his former rival George W. Bush in 2004 and when he spoke at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in 2006, I chalked it up to the exigencies of Republican politics. I convinced myself that his lurch to the right and his fear mongering in the 2008 presidential campaign was really the work of his Bush-trained handlers. When he continued on his hard-right course after the election, I figured he was bitter about the loss.

Now, the most generous explanation is that McCain needs to protect his right flank because he’s facing a primary challenge in Arizona from a “birther” Republican, the radio broadcaster and former congressman J.D. Hayworth. But each time it gets harder to hold on to the hope that there’s still an iconoclast in there somewhere.

To a certain extent, I’m glad Milbank realizes now that the McCain he adored is gone, and he’s not coming back.

But like Atrios, I think these “what happened to John McCain?” articles are all a bit much. It’s been several years since the senator gave up on his “maverick” shtick. Shouldn’t media professionals have noticed long before now that he’s just another predictable conservative Republican?

I can appreciate why there’s at least some reluctance from the establishment (not to mention Sunday-show bookers). McCain, perhaps more than any Republican lawmaker of this generation, had an opportunity to become a giant. The media loved him. The public respected him. His rivals perceived him as a reasonable, honorable man. Over many years, he cultivated a reputation that most politicians would kill for.

But McCain threw all of that away. As Milbank noted, “McCain’s political mentor, the late Arizona conservative icon Barry Goldwater, became more idiosyncratic late in life, supporting gay rights and denouncing the religious right. The protege has gone the other way, shedding his idiosyncrasies and becoming reflexively anti-government, a conventional conservative.”

That’s entirely correct. I just don’t know what took Milbank so long.

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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.