In part, McCain’s return to form is a response to political realities. He won’t face voters for years (if ever), Obama will be in office for the rest of McCain’s Senate term, and Republicans got slammed at the polls last fall. More than many in his party, perhaps because of his experience as a presidential nominee, McCain’s public remarks suggest he has absorbed the implications of the lopsided Hispanic vote; his party’s basement-level approval ratings; the gulf between the GOP and the public on issues such as guns, immigration, and economic policy; and the need for Republicans to start addressing problems people care about.

Thus, barely three years after he ran a bare-knuckle primary campaign epitomized by his “Complete the danged fence” TV ad, McCain not only was instrumental in working out a bipartisan immigration compromise, he also went to the White House this week with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to brief Obama on the bill. He helped arrange Obama’s outreach dinner with GOP senators and, when the president’s budget came out, he rejected GOP skepticism about its proposals to curb Medicare and Social Security costs. “Maybe the president is on track to try to begin negotiations over a grand bargain,” he said on Fox News. McCain also discouraged talk of a filibuster on guns. He was one of only four Republicans voting this week for a background-check expansion that failed to pass.

At one point this month, McCain defended Obama on two fronts on one day. “I can certainly understand … why the president got somewhat emotional,” he said on CNN after Obama delivered a scathing speech on the failed Senate gun vote. And in a talk with reporters about the isolationist tendencies of some conservatives, he said that “there are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my party.”