Why McCain Might Win

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama show few signs that they're aware of it, but the general election campaign has already begun. And appropriately for the eve of St. Patrick's Day, the pair have begun to destroy each other like the two crazy Irish cats of Kilkenny. The upshot is that both of them are already losing the general to John McCain. By the time the Democratic convention rolls around in August and the nomination is finally awarded, the battle may already be over.

Obama's advisers point out, rightfully, that the Clinton campaign started this downward drift toward mutually assured destruction, Democratic-style, with its now infamous "red phone" ad before the critical Ohio and Texas primaries. Subtly but with devastating impact, the TV commercial raised questions about Obama's preparedness to be commander in chief. The Obama campaign responded by effectively branding Hillary Clinton a liar about her own record. "As far as the record shows, Sen. Clinton never answered the phone either to make a decision on any pressing national security issue—not at 3 a.m. or at any other time of day," top Obama adviser Greg Craig—a former close friend of Hillary's—wrote this week in a widely circulated memo.

Winning elections is about setting the agenda and, while creating a positive image of oneself, negatively defining one's opponent in the minds of the voters. This is happening for McCain—having Obama defined as unready and Hillary as lacking in integrity—without his having to lift a finger. If the current campaign keeps up—and there's every sign it will—it's likely that by summer irrepressible doubts about both Dems will have been lodged in the minds of the electorate.

That's no small thing. Especially in this age of terror and economic uncertainty, voters don't want doubts. They will want to pull the lever for the most trustworthy candidate. And who's making himself seem trustworthy? Why, John McCain, of course. Next week he's off to Europe and the Mideast to confer with "leaders I have strong relationships with," as he put it to reporters the other day.

We have been here before, most recently in 2004. Within days of his securing the nomination on Super Tuesday in March of that year, John Kerry became the victim of a vicious Karl Rove-orchestrated plan to paint the Democrat as a flip-flopper. The bewildered Kerry, and his even more clueless advisers, Bob Shrum and Tad Devine, failed to respond for months, while their candidate was relentlessly tarred by the GOP attack machine. "Wait until the fall," one Kerry adviser responded sagely when I asked why they weren't counterattacking more. But by the time the Democrats gathered in July for their convention, the GOP-inflicted image of Kerry had taken hold. That's why the Swift Boat attacks against Kerry's war record in August were so powerful. So many voters already saw him as a waffling wimp that, despite his clear heroism and uncontested Silver Star in Vietnam, they easily bought into the slander. In the last six weeks of the fall campaign Kerry finally changed course and came out swinging, but by then it was far too late.

A similar process is underway now, but the Republicans don't need Karl Rove this time around. Both the Clinton and Obama camps do worry about the consequences in the fall, and Obama's advisers hope, wishfully, that the Clintonites will stop the bloodletting that they began. The likelihood, however, is that the Hillary camp will only step things up. She knows that while he leads in pledged delegates, by winning most of the big Blue states she has racked up a big lead in the potential electoral votes any Democrat will need to win in November. As Marie Cocco of the Washington Post Writers Group wrote the other day, "In this sense, Pennsylvania is where Obama's back, and not Clinton's, is up against the wall."

And so let us return to our St. Paddy's Day sermon. Children who are familiar with this nursery rhyme already understand more, perhaps, than the two leading Democratic candidates for president. To wit: "There once were two cats of Kilkenny/Each thought there was one cat too many/So they fought and they fit, and they scratched and they bit/Till excepting their nails and the tips of their tails/Instead of two cats there weren't any."