My wife, the very shrewd Sally Pipes, penetrated to the heart of the debate in a single sentence tonight when, only about 15 minutes into the exchange, she observed: “Romney’s flag pin is much larger than Obama’s flag pin.”
Indeed, it was, as I confirmed in the next split screen of the candidates.
Ever since the 1960s, liberals have been sensitive about the dimensions of their patriotism, and here, on national television, in a debate over foreign policy, Obama had been clearly outmaneuvered. His fleet was noticeably smaller than the challenger’s. His bayonet — well, you get the point.
Obama and the flag pin have a back story, which I wrote about in my chapter in Confronting Terror, the anthology of reflections on 9/11 ten years after, published last year by Encounter Books and edited by John Yoo and Dean Reuter. As a candidate for president in fall 2007, Obama not only declined to wear a flag pin on his lapel, but also defended his decision on grounds of high principle. “The truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin,” he said in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on October 3. “Shortly after 9/11, particularly as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are important to our national security. I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead I’m going to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism.” The next day he went further, suggesting that people who wear the lapel pin are compensating, as the Freudians say, for their own inadequate patriotism. “After a while,” he explained, “you start noticing people wearing a lapel pin, but not acting very patriotic. Not voting to provide veterans with resources they need. Not voting to make sure that disability payments were coming out on time.”
He didn’t want to confuse wearing a flag pin, which would appeal to policemen and firefighters and other middlebrow types, with the “true patriotism” that would appeal to artists and professors. True patriotism means attending to “disability payments” and the other programs of the welfare state.
It took Obama about six months to abandon true for false, or rather for pretended patriotism. In an April 2008 town hall meeting in Pittsburgh, a veteran handed him a pin and asked him to wear it, which he did for a day, leading to what Time magazine called “a much-ridiculed question on the issue at a much-ridiculed ABC debate later that week.” In his reply to the questioner, Obama said, remarkably, “I have never said that I don’t wear flag pins or refuse to wear flag pins.” The media ridiculed the question, not the answer, which after all showed the brazen disregard for common honesty that postmodern intellectuals prefer. As the campaign and then his presidency proceeded, the flag pin became more or less a staple of Obama’s wardrobe. He was wearing it on the night he announced Bin Laden had been killed.
And he wore it conspicuously at last night’s debate. But somehow his disdain for, or at least impatience with, ordinary American patriotism — infamous, for example, from his remarks about American exceptionalism being just like Greek exceptionalism (well, both countries are broke) — shone through.
Though he’s tried to put Sixties-style anti-Americanism behind him and behind liberalism, he hasn’t quite succeeded. Despite the points he scored against Romney, he couldn’t persuade voters that Romney was an unsafe guardian of the national interest, nor, despite the moderation of his own foreign policies, could Obama persuade them that he himself was an instinctively trustworthy guardian of those interests.
So another draw, which is more good news for Romney, the guy with the bigger flag pin.
— Charles R. Kesler is author of I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.