A few weeks ago I wrote a piece asking whether Obama was cynical enough to win in November. I still don't know the answer to that question, but as we're now a week or two into the semi-official general election campaign, I think it's worth asking another, related question: Is McCain cynical enough to win? (Obviously one of them is cynical enough to win, since this is a zero-sum game, but bear with me...)

I ask because the early conventional wisdom was that the more the campaign focused on Iraq specifically, the more it would benefit the Democrat, since voters have turned against the war so thoroughly. (So much so that even though a lot of people concede the surge has been working, it hasn't really affected their desire to withdraw.) On the other hand, the more the debate centered on terrorism, toughness, national security bona fides, etc., the more it was supposed to help the Republican. In that context, you'd think McCain would be constantly bashing Obama as a weak-kneed appeaser. And there's certainly been some of that. But I think you hear McCain talk about Iraq a lot more often than is probably good for him. And not just in abstract terms--Obama wants us to lose, I want victory. But in specific policy terms, like McCain's insistence that the surge is working, which gives Obama a chance to point out what a disaster the whole thing has been.

The latest example of this is McCain's jab at how long it's been since Obama visited Iraq. Obviously, the point is to emphasize that Obama's too green to be commander-in-chief. But there are ways of doing that without dwelling on the biggest U.S. foreign policy disaster of this generation, the way McCain has. See, for example, this L.A. Times piece about yesterday's back and forth:

RENO -- Speaking with evident condescension, Arizona Sen. John McCain needled Barack Obama on Wednesday by offering to travel to Iraq with the Illinois senator to help him gain a better understanding of the war and the consequences of withdrawing troops. ...

Speaking before a boisterous crowd of 500 who gathered for a town-hall-style meeting here, McCain accused his Democratic rival of ignoring the successes of the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq and suggested that Obama was ignorant of the facts.

"To say that we failed in Iraq and we're not succeeding does not comport with the facts on the ground, so we've got to show him the facts on the ground," McCain said.

McCain also said Obama's proposal to set a date for troop withdrawal would "lead to chaos, genocide and increased Iranian influence." 

To which, again according to the LAT, the Obama campaign responded pretty effectively:

Obama spokesman Bill Burton fired back that it was "odd that Sen. McCain, who bought the flawed rationale for war so readily, would be lecturing others on their depth of understanding about Iraq."

Burton said Obama challenged President Bush's rationale for the war "from the start."

"Sen. McCain stubbornly insists on pursuing the failed Bush policy that continues to cost so much, while Sen. Obama believes it's time to begin a deliberate, careful strategy to remove our troops and compel the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future."

My hunch is that McCain really wants to debate Iraq--he really, truly thinks it's the most important issue facing the country, and thinks he can persuade people on the merits--and so his political advisers are doing the best they can with it. I guess I respect that on some level. And, politically, it does reinforce his truth-teller, "I'd rather lose an election than lose a war" image. But, assuming Obama is able to establish a minimum level of national security credibility, which I think he will, McCain may be making a strategic mistake.

Update: Don't get me wrong--I think McCain can be pretty cynical. He's willing to flip-flop and pander and distort and demagogue on any number of issues. Maybe the better way to put it is: Is McCain cynical enough on Iraq? That may be the bar he needs to clear if he wants to win...

--Noam Scheiber