In Washington, all politics is personality. Or so it often seems. After the Jim Jeffords jump, the media zoomed in on Senator John McCain and breathlessly penned a new chapter in the Bush-McCain psychodrama. Look, McCain is hosting Tom Daschle at his weekend home in Arizona! Is he about to bolt the GOP? McCain pals, including pundit/publisher/political strategist William Kristol, are meeting to ponder the possibilities of an independent McCain presidential run! Slap the news on the front page!

Ever since Bush whupped McCain in the GOP primaries, the will-he, won’t-he game hasn’t ceased–although McCain repeatedly pledges fealty to party and dismisses talk of a 2004 bid. But each denial stokes speculation, and much of the accompanying chatter has concentrated on McCain’s ego. He can’t get over being beaten by a putz. He still resents the dirty tricks pulled by Bush backers. He’ll do anything to get on TV. No doubt McCain, like most pols, is driven by personal concerns. During the 2000 contest, he fell in love with leading what he considered (accurately or not) a grassroots movement for reform. Armchair psychology: It was as if McCain believed he was finally the hero he had long been portrayed to be by others. In McCain’s mind, his Vietnam story–shot down and taken prisoner, refusing an early release as an admiral’s son, then breaking under torture and signing a confession declaring himself a “black criminal” and attempting suicide–is not a heroic tale. “I failed,” he once told an interviewer. Clearly, McCain was happy to develop a hero-through-politics narrative.

It’s intriguing that McCain is trying to keep this story line alive, not only by hinting and then denying he’ll go indy but by adopting a set of stands that are left of center, by conventional reckoning. The McCain soap opera isn’t only about ambition and recovered heroism; it’s full of policy subplots. McCain has joined Democrats Ted Kennedy and John Edwards to push a patients’ bill of rights opposed by the White House, and he has also joined Democrat Joe Lieberman to offer legislation to tighten a gun-show loophole. With Democrat Russ Feingold, he pushed a modest, if problematic, campaign reform bill through the Senate over GOP objections. He even whacked Bush for abandoning the Kyoto global-warming treaty. During debate on the tax bill, he offered an amendment to scale back the tax cut for the wealthiest (the measure lost on a tie vote). Then he was one of two Republicans to vote against the bill. Not even hero-to-Democrats Jim Jeffords did that. (Jeffords had the power to gum up the relieve-the-rich tax bill, yet chose not to.)

McCain has developed a quirky agenda with a liberal leaning. He remains hawkish; he is still officially antichoice. But he’s either using the prospect of a move to independence (and the attention that brings him) to push this non-Republican platform or exploiting this non-Republican platform (and the attention that brings him) to create the opportunity for a move to independence. Perhaps both. In any event, it’s an encouraging development for Democrats, who, prior to the Jeffords jump, were unable to put forward much of their own message. In a closely divided Senate, a McCain in the spotlight can help them on several key fronts.

The odd sideshow here is Kristol. His associates say he has embraced McCain as a Teddy Roosevelt figure who can champion the somewhat vague but bombastic “national greatness” conservatism Kristol advocates. But McCain’s acts of apostasy involve small steps to the left. Does Kristol, who was instrumental in smothering HillaryCare, really crave a strong patients’ bill of rights?

McCain’s latest shuffles probably bolster the Democrats more than his presidential ambitions. He’d have a tough time fully repudiating Bush and the GOP. At the Republican convention–only ten months ago–McCain said, “If you believe patriotism is more than a soundbite and public service should be more than a photo-op, then vote for Governor Bush…. I know that by supporting George W. Bush, I serve my country well.” Can Mr. Straight-Talk Express renounce that statement and not seem an opportunistic crybaby? It’s not as if Bush has veered from his campaign positions. To justify an exit from the party, McCain would have to proclaim: I’ve seen the light–Bush and the Republicans are wrong; I was wrong to support them, and it’s time for me to go. Such talk might be too straight to utter. In the meantime, McCain–ambition-driven or policy-driven–has figured out how to do what many Democrats (paging Al Gore) have not: discomfit Bush, shape debates and advance a few policies that tilt left.