It’s pretty clear that the desperation has not only set in on the Republicans, they’re getting to the point that it’s starting to leak out like anti-freeze from a crack in an overheated radiator. What more proof do you need than the continuing fascination the right wing has with Barack Obama’s middle name and his lack of the proper lapel attire. Affable if not loony Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) was on Real Time with Bill Maher over the weekend and he repeated both the middle name and the lapel pin crap and got a derisive hoot from the host and the audience for the trouble. (And, it should be noted, Mr. Kingston was not wearing an American flag lapel pin himself, as if that actually matters.) It’s gotten to the point that even some right wingers are throwing up their hands in disgust and telling their fellow conservatives and whacko conspiracy theorists to “get a grip.”
The Serious Pundits are taking a different tack. Or at least one is. William Kristol, in a fit of unintentional irony, accuses Sen. Obama of making himself the focus of the race, as if he is the only one who can save the country, and thereby creating a cult of personality surrounding him rather than focus on the issues, and also uses the flag pin kerfuffle as his sticking point.
Last October, a reporter asked Barack Obama why he had stopped wearing the American flag lapel pin that he, like many other public officials, had been sporting since soon after Sept. 11. Obama could have responded that his new-found fashion minimalism was no big deal. What matters, obviously, is what you believe and do, not what you wear.
But Obama chose to present his flag-pin removal as a principled gesture. “You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because 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 of importance to our national security, I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest.”
Leave aside the claim that “speaking out on issues” constitutes true patriotism. What’s striking is that Obama couldn’t resist a grandiose explanation. Obama’s unnecessary and imprudent statement impugns the sincerity or intelligence of those vulgar sorts who still choose to wear a flag pin. But moral vanity prevailed. He wanted to explain that he was too good — too patriotic! — to wear a flag pin on his chest.
No, what Mr. Obama is saying is that just because you wear a flag pin — or put a magnetic one on the back of your Hummer — doesn’t make you a patriot. It makes you look like you’re a morally superior simp who has to use jewelry (probably made in China) to reassure yourself that all you have to do is wear the pin to be patriotic instead of doing something like, oh, actually do something to make the country a better place. The flag pin is your free pass to commit sartorial demagoguery.
The irony comes from the fact that in accusing Mr. Obama of making the race “all about him,” Mr. Kristol is ignoring the fact that the right wing has been running on the cult of personality they built around the sainted Ronald Reagan and trying to get it back ever since. And if you don’t think that the GOP would love to have someone with the talent and the vision of Barack Obama — even if it is just rhetorical splendor — and that they wouldn’t sell that over substance, you have obviously not been checking with your answering service.
Ever since the end of the Reagan era, they have been desperately seeking someone who had the smile and charisma to repeat the magic that overwhelmed the nation and swept out the humble and bumbling Carter administration. And what have they come up with since then? A pale imitation in the person of George W. Bush, who even on his best day couldn’t summon the timing and carefully-crafted spontaneity of Ronald Reagan if it was handed to him on a silver platter. And now they’re proposing to nominate John McCain, who Mr. Kristol summons his best game face to describe as someone who “more proud of his country than of himself. And his patriotism has consisted of deeds more challenging than “speaking out on issues.” Wow; not exactly what I’ve call a ringing endorsement.
What I think is happening is that the Republicans are realizing that with John McCain they haven’t got the next Ronald Reagan, they’ve got the next Jimmy Carter: a competent if not inspiring candidate that stirs suspicion in the base that he’s not really One of Them (David Keene of the American Conservative Union told NPR this morning that Sen. McCain barely scores a 60 on his 100-point scale of being a True Believer, and 80 is a passing grade) and that given his age, if he’s elected, he’ll be a one-term caretaker until they can either find the next Reagan or come up with a scientific breakthrough to reanimate the last one. (Oh, wait; the right wing thinks science has a liberal bias.) The spluttering defense of Sen. McCain against the story in the Times last week about his relationship with a female lobbyist was more about the story and the unproven sexual angle than it was about the uncomfortable reminder of the fact that Mr. McCain has had a problematic history with lobbyists in the past and has since painted himself as the paragon of virtue when it comes to Capitol Hill influence.
When John McCain loses, they will then turn on him with all the pent-up fury and frustration that’s already evident in their subtext and continue to desperately seek out their next Reagan. It won’t be pretty, but it will be fun to watch.