THE MAVERICK’S MUDDLED MESSAGE…. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was the featured guest on “Fox News Sunday,” and host Chris Wallace asked a reasonable question on the minds of many political observers: “How can you say, ‘I never considered myself a maverick’?”

MCCAIN: Well, look, when I was fighting against my own president, whether we needed more troops in Iraq, or whether we — spending was completely out of control, then I was a maverick. Now that I’m fighting against this spending administration and this out-of-control and reckless health care plan, then I’m a partisan.

I’ve been called a lot of things, and I’ll be glad to be called anything. But I’m a fighter, and that’s what I am. And I fought against my own administration when I wanted to, when I thought it was necessary to do so, and I will fight against this administration when I think it’s necessary to do so.

McCain was no doubt expecting the question, so it stands to reason that this was the best answer he could come up with. The problem, of course, is that it’s rather silly on its face — McCain’s response was all about what labels other may or may not apply to him. The question here, however, is all about what labels McCain applies to himself. He’s been running around for years, and nearly every sentence out of his mouth is a noun, a verb, and “maverick.” When McCain faces a primary challenger and concludes, “I never considered myself a maverick,” there’s a problem.

Wallace, to his credit, followed up explaining the disconnect.

WALLACE: But if I may press you, it isn’t what other people are saying about you, it’s what you’re saying about yourself. You said, “I never considered myself a maverick.”

MCCAIN: Well, all I — what I was saying was that I have considered myself a person who’s a fighter. I wouldn’t be around today if I wasn’t a fighter. I fight for the things that I believe in, and sometimes that’s called a maverick. Sometimes that’s called a partisan. And people can draw their own conclusions. I prefer “great American” myself, but…

WALLACE: So are you running away from the maverick title…

MCCAIN: No, of course not.

WALLACE: … because somehow it indicates that maybe you’re not a true blue conservative?

But McCain is running away from the label. That’s the point. He eschewed the label with Newsweek, and then again soon after with Politico.

The irony is, McCain denied considering himself a maverick because he’s worried about his re-election prospects and impressing voters. But by making a transparently ridiculous claim, McCain inadvertently has caused himself far more damage, offering up a six-word soundbite that has become one of the year’s most ridiculed and lampooned political phrases. Sticking to the truth would have been far less humiliating.

Postscript: Asked about whether he’s concerned about anti-incumbency attitudes this year, McCain said, “No, I don’t worry about it. I know that I can out-campaign anybody.” Well, perhaps not “anybody.”

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.