The Corner

Obama & the Cant & Orthodoxies of Pandering

I have written about Obama and the reemergence of his American flag pin elsewhere this morning. Given his transparent pandering on this issue, I wonder what the effect will be on some of those liberals who not long ago praised Obama for not wearing it. I have in mind, for example, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post.

In his May 6, 2008 column, Cohen wrote this:

Sometimes I think the best thing about Barack Obama is that little empty space on his lapel. It is where other politicians wear the American flag pin, a kitschy piece of empty symbolism that tells you nothing about that particular person except that he or she thinks like everyone else. Obama’s flag, invisible to the naked eye, is the Jolly Roger of a politician thinking for himself. The flag pin issue arose last fall when someone noticed that Obama was campaigning in the patriotic nude. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, wearing the pin had become de rigueur for politicians. Obama, too, had worn the pin but took it off when he started “noticing people wearing a lapel pin, but not acting very patriotic.” Some of these people, he said unconvincingly, were not voting for veterans’ benefits and the like — “not voting to make sure that disability payments were coming out on time.” I suspect more to the point — and much more important than votes on veterans’ issues — was Obama’s sense that the flag pin, rather than representing patriotism, was an emblem of conformity and hypocrisy… Many people will read a lot of meaning into Obama’s refusal to wear the pin. Some will see it as a lack of patriotism, an emotional distance from the country that has served him so well. Others, such as I, will see it as an expression of cool, the statement of a candidate who wants to be president but not at the cost of his intellectual integrity. And still others (me again) will see it as Obama’s push-back, his reluctance to do something simply because it is demanded of him. An allergy to cant can be an admirable quality in a politician, although not necessarily a politically smart one… This column would itself be an exercise in pandering if it did not acknowledge that, on occasion, Obama can practice the old politics with the best of them… Still, it is bracing to see a presidential candidate recoil, for the most part, from the orthodoxies of pandering. In this regard, the lack of a flag pin has become an important sign of Obama’s desire to think for himself. For all it says about Obama, I salute it.

Now that Obama has embraced cant and the orthodoxies of pandering, I wonder if Cohen and other liberals will take him to task for it. It would be an admirable display of independent thought if they did. Cohen is quite wrong, I think, to say that the American flag pin is “a kitschy piece of empty symbolism” — and to pretend it takes Sharansky-like courage not to wear it is nonsense. But at least Cohen will be consistent in his hatred of it. It seems to me that Obama is worse — pandering to the Left when it suits him (and of course done with his own touch of high-minded arrogance), pandering toward the center when it advances his own self-interest.

Obama seems quite skilled at playing this game; the question is how long it will take before people from every part of the political spectrum begin to call him on it. Right now Obama is rightly thought to be a heavy favorite to win the presidency, especially in an environment that strongly favors Democrats. He is an extremely gifted candidate with a first-rate political operation behind him. But if the impression metastasizes that Obama is, at his core, a man of leftist instincts and unreliable character, he could make a race that shouldn’t be competitive into one that is.

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