Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Flag Pin Blues

Barack Obama has been wearing a flag pin since Monday.

He first showed up with the flag pin when he addressed a veterans group in West Virginia. On Tuesday, according to a Time magazine article, "he was sans pin on the Senate floor, but then later donned it while speaking to working class voters in Missouri during the evening."

On Wednesday he wore it in Michigan.

David Axelrod, his campaign manager, said, "I think he'll be doing more of that."

[The blog author shakes his head.]

Is this really a wise decision on the part of the Obama campaign? Does he really want to be tarred-and-feathered as a flip-flopper on the flag pin?

Last October, Obama spoke eloquently about the issue:

"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," Obama said in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest. Instead I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe what will make this country great and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism."
Then, at the horrid Philadelphia debate, moderated by Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, the flag pin issue came back up again. Obama lost Pennsylvania. Then he got crushed in West Virginia.

Now, suddenly, Obama's wearing a flag pin.

Voters who question Obama's patriotism because he doesn't wear a flag pin probably weren't going to vote for him in the first place. And if a few of these folks are actually on the fence, do you think they're going to start sending him donations now that he's started wearing the pin?

On the other hand, his flip-flopping on an issue involving patriotism may strike some potential Obama voters as hypocritical, which most people don't appreciate.

If you ask me, it seems like one of those classic bonehead Democratic moves. Rather than reinforce Obama's sense of authenticity, or his determination to stand up for what he believes, as his original statement on the flag pin did (or his position against the gas tax), it reinforces his image as a Liberal elitist trying to reach out to "ordinary folks," thinking they're too dumb to notice what he's doing.

Instead of sticking with his own core values, he's giving in to political expediency. The Republicans can get away with it - see the entire campaign of John McCain. Democrats rarely do. They always wind up looking like fakes.

What's the upside? Is it really going to help Obama?


Liam said...

Yeah, you're right -- it does seem a bit like pandering, and it is a typical dem mistake. I hope he's ready for the silly storm.

Have you heard any comments about it anywhere?

Liam said...

From Reuters:

“I started wearing it again at that veterans event because once again I had been handed a flag pin by a veteran who said it was important,” he told reporters on his campaign plane during a flight to Chicago.

“This is an issue that is a phony issue because I was never opposed to wearing flag pins.”

He said giving up the flag pin in the first place was a commentary on hypocritical lawmakers.

“It was a commentary on our politicians and folks in Washington who sometimes are very good about saluting our soldiers when they come home but then don’t follow up with budgets that make sure that they’re getting treatment for post traumatic stress disorder,” he said.

“So it was a commentary about our politics, not about, you know, individuals who wear the flag with pride.”

I don't know how many legs this story might have -- it will get a lot of play on right-wing blogs, and there will be quite a few asshats who won't vote for him because he didn't wear a flag pin before, but in general he handles this sort of thing much better than candidates like Kerry or Dukakis.

cowboyangel said...

Thanks for the follow-up story.

in general he handles this sort of thing much better than candidates like Kerry or Dukakis

Agreed. But how many times do you want to put yourself in that position? He's getting attacked on several fronts at the same time - does he really need to hand his opponents a gimme.

I think Axelrod's comment was the most disconcerting.

The Democrats don't need superficial gestures of patriotism to win this election. They need some G-ddamn backbone for once. That's an area in which they absolutely suck. And absolutely don't seem to understand.

I'll give Hillary credit for that - I think she understood the need to appear like you had some backbone. Even if her stubbornness on the war probably cost her this election in the end.

We'll see how it all plays out.

crystal said...

Hi William,

I commented earlier but don't see it here now. I just said that I didn't doubt Obama's patriotism but did doubt his sincerity. I've just read something about him and Gavin Newsom, and I'm not ure what's what in that case, but an example would be his statement about small town voters and then his later efforts to woo them for votes.

cowboyangel said...


What's the "Gavin Newsome" thing?

The "bitter" comment definitely hurt Obama, but I'm not sure he said anything untrue. He just didn't say it very well. Having lived in a few small towns, I imagine there are people there who agree with him. And why wouldn't he go after voters in small towns? He's done very well in small towns in the past, and I'm sure he will in the future.

For one thing, not every small town is the same. One in Colorado isn't like one in West Virginia or one in Vermont. Plus, believe me, not everybody who lives in a small town behaves the same way. To imply, as the media and others have, that every "small town" or small-town person is the same is just as condescending as the attitude they're attributing to Obama.

I don't see that as a sincerity issue. An elitist issue, yes.

cowboyangel said...

Ah, the Gavin Newsome thing. I remembered you had a post, Crystal. I'm on the way out the door now, but I'll read it later today.

BTW, I never saw a previous comment from you. Just so you know.

crystal said...

It wasn't that what he said about small town voters being bitter, gun-toting and clinging to religion wasn't true, in many cases I'm sure it is, but it was the level of contempt he showed towards them in that statement (to his wealthy and educated and sucessful San Francisco audience) that bothered me. After that, to then buddy up to them for votes is the disingenuous part.

Part of this is perception - I think my perception of him is very different than yours, so we see the same things but see different things.

cowboyangel said...

Yes, I'm sure our perceptions differ. I don't think he showed "contempt" towards people in small towns, for example. I think he was trying to explain to one group of voters in San Francisco the way he sees things in small, rust-belt towns where tons of jobs have disappeared. I don't see how that shows contempt.

How many times have I tried explaining to liberal friends in New York City what life is like in rural Texas, where my mother's farm is, or out in West Texas? Or why I love living in small towns and don't miss all the supposed advantages of Manhattan? If you ask me, the urban-rural divide in this country is a huge issue that's never really discussed or analyzed very well. People in big cities often have pure contempt for small town life. And people in small towns show reverse snobbism towards people in big cities many times. I've heard it all. A lot of nasty stuff.

I didn't hear that from Obama. I heard him trying to explain something to people who probably have no idea what it's like to live in one of those little towns and watch the only source of income suddenly move to China.

I can easily imagine myself saying the same kind of things to friends in New York, so how can I criticize him? Did he do it in the best way? No. But I didn't hear contempt.

Evidently, you did.

Mike McG... said...


Late to the conversation, as usual, but very intrigued by the conversation about mutual understanding vs. contempt.

It seems to me that vetting a political candidate involves seaching for messages that s/he "gets" me. I am a huge Obama supporter but I don't think it is beyond the pale for the demographics he's not attracting to look for signs of resonance. And a flag pin sends a message: one we regard as superficial...but one that others regard as revelatory. Isn't it of the essence of Obama's crossover message that he is not unwilling to selectively, not slavishly, send this message to "these people" that he "gets" them? Perhaps they are allergic to the messages we think he ought to send.

Peace, Mike McG...

Apropos of this conversation, there is a review of a provocative book entitled "The Big Sort" in this morning's New York Times:

For those who get the print version of the NYT book review, the graphic for this review is priceless!

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for dropping by! Always great to have your thoughtful input.

I don't think it is beyond the pale for the demographics he's not attracting to look for signs of resonance. And a flag pin sends a message: one we regard as superficial...but one that others regard as revelatory.

I guess the million-dollar question is: Will people in the demographics he's not attracting find the flag-pin revelatory or resonate? Obviously, Axelrod and Obama think they will. And they're very smart guys - so who am I to question the strategy?

My argument is that authenticity would resonate more with these people than Obama wearing a flag-pin. I'm thinking of conservative friends, family, colleagues - in places like Texas or Colorado or Long Island. Look at the popularity of Ross Perot and Jessie Ventura and even Kinky Friedman. I know a couple in rural Texas - the husband is a precinct captain for the Republican Party - who really liked Friedman. They didn't agree with him on many of the issues, but they liked the fact that he seemed to be a straight talker. They're fed up right now with government - they want "change," just as Obama realized. And they want what you say - for a candidate to "get" them. I don't think they'd give a rat's ass if Obama wears a flag pin. But if Fox and the Republicans spin this as Obama flip-flopping and trying to fake patriotism, there's no way they're going to consider the guy.

My feeling is that the Democrats completely underestimate the authenticity factor. They always seem to be trying to find "an electable candidate." So we got John Kerry last time. We got Al Gore, with all his political credentials, flabbergasted on national television when debating George W. Bush, who can hardly speak.

I think authenticity is tied in with "strength" for most people. So a Hollywood actor like Ronald Reagan comes off much stronger than an actual military man and Vietnam veteran like John Kerry. The Dems all thought a military guy would be just the trick in 2004. So what did the Republicans do? They made his military service seem questionable and tarred him as a flip-flopper. Authenticity issues - tied to strength.

Obama's already got strength issues. Clinton obviously sensed that. He's not experienced (read "tough") enough to be president. He's an egg-head. And that's why the elitist tag has been working so well. The guy does seem a bit precious. When does he seems strong? When he stands up for something. He's got fighter in him, but he needs to release it more. And I don't think flip-flopping on issues will help him in that regard.

It's a mathematical question, I suppose. Axelrod seems willing to risk chipping away at that rare authenticity for the sake of X number of voters who may find the flag pin revelatory.

Thanks for the link to the review of The Big Sort. The graphic seems a bit incongruous with the article, no? I think the "microtargeted" segments break down at even smaller levels. For example, most of south Texas voted for Kerry. Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, voted for Bush. The gerrymandering of districts shows that politicians understand the local-level of these polarized groups.

Frankly, I've always been partial to this graphic to explain the nation.

Mike McG... said...


I'm thinking that the gas tax holiday opposition might have been an authentic strength message that resonated. What additional authentic strength messages could Obama send to these voters? Jim Webb for VP?

Your map: LOL!

Peace, Mike McG...

cowboyangel said...

More and more, I think Jim Webb would be a great choice for VP. I know some people(including myself) have been concerned about him being a bit of a loose cannon, but I don't see how he could be any worse than McCain.

Obama-Webb. I think that would be a strong ticket - an unusual one for the Dems. Not your typical liberal ticket. Both are more culturally conservative than other Dems, which I think would work well with exactly the kind of voters we're talking about. Webb would totally equalize if not surpass McCain's military creds. But he's against the war. Without knowing some of his downside, I'd take a chance on Webb. He's got the toughness that I think Obama can lack. I keep saying it - but people are scared right now. They want a Daddy.

Yes, I think the gas tax is a good example. I think Obama has several authentic messages that he's been able to use in the past to connect with people in small towns. He just needs to reinforce them now that he's been turned into an elitist by the Clintons. Just talking straight with people about the economy - their jobs going overseas, ax breaks for corporations that stay in the US - that's all good stuff, I think. Telling his own story. Growing up on foodstamps, paying off his student loans. And joking about being "the skinny guy with the funny name," as he did when we was winning rural counties in Illinois. He needs to do this in a way that gets big coverage. Make a policy speech on the economy that draws real distinctions with McCain and the Republicans.

More than anything, I think he just needs to spend time with the kind of people that he's not reaching well. That's what's worked for him in the past. I think his decision to basically skip West Virginia wasn't a smart one. I think he needs to go right in there and talk to folks. Be seen and heard talking to people who might not be thought of as his natural constituents.

Talking tough about the war on terror. He's good on this - tying the disaster into the faltering economy. But then making it clear that we should go after the bad guys. Right now, he's a novice who wants to negotiate with terrorists. He needs to get back to being the guy who wants to wage the REAL war on terror instead of getting us stuck in Iraq.