Samuel Johnson wrote that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Those were the good old days; now, the last refuge of a scoundrel is pretending that his patriotism has been impugned.
In his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars today, Barack Obama complained that John McCain has questioned his patriotism, and contrasted his own high-minded behavior with McCain’s. Here is how the Associated Press put it:
Democrat Barack Obama challenged his Republican opponent John McCain on Tuesday to stop questioning his “character and patriotism.”
Obama was actually quite fulsome on the subject. This is the text of the relevant portion of what he said to the VFW:
If we think that we can use the same partisan playbook where we just challenge our opponent’s patriotism to win an election, then the American people will lose. The times are too serious for this kind of politics. The calamity left behind by the last eight years is too great.
Obama seems to think that challenging an opponent’s patriotism is routine in Presidential politics. Actually, I can’t recall a single instance when it’s happened.
[O]ne of the things that we have to change in this country is the idea that people can’t disagree without challenging each other’s character and patriotism.
But who has “the idea that people can’t disagree without challenging each other’s character and patriotism?” I’ve never heard that idea expressed by anyone on either side of the political aisle. Certainly not by John McCain.
I have never suggested that Senator McCain picks his positions on national security based on politics or personal ambition. I have not suggested it because I believe that he genuinely wants to serve America’s national interest. Now, it’s time for him to acknowledge that I want to do the same.
Let me be clear: I will let no one question my love of this country. I love America, so do you, and so does John McCain.
When he says “no one,” I suppose he means to except Jeremiah Wright. But has McCain ever questioned Obama’s love of country? No.
So let’s have a serious debate, and let’s debate our disagreements on the merits of policy — not personal attacks.
While Obama spoke with his usual vagueness, he seemed to be objecting to McCain’s speech to the same group on the previous day. So let’s see what McCain said about Obama, and whether he attacked Obama’s patriotism. Here is everything that McCain had to say about Obama:
The lasting advantage of a peaceful and democratic ally in the heart of the Middle East could still be squandered by hasty withdrawal and arbitrary timelines. And this is one of many problems in the shifting positions of my opponent, Senator Obama.
With less than three months to go before the election, a lot of people are still trying to square Senator Obama’s varying positions on the surge in Iraq. First, he opposed the surge and confidently predicted that it would fail. Then he tried to prevent funding for the troops who carried out the surge. Not content to merely predict failure in Iraq, my opponent tried to legislate failure.
All true enough. Obama does indeed have a sorry, contradictory record on Iraq, and he was indisputably wrong about the surge, predicting that it would increase violence. And he voted to cut off funding for the troops, which would have ensured defeat.
This was back when supporting America’s efforts in Iraq entailed serious political risk. It was a clarifying moment. It was a moment when political self- interest and the national interest parted ways. For my part, with so much in the balance, it was an easy call. As I said at the time, I would rather lose an election than lose a war.
This might be what Obama is complaining about, but again, McCain is clearly right: at the time he advocated the surge, it was politically unpopular to do so. But this was a comment on McCain’s motivation, not Obama’s. McCain never said or implied that Obama really believed the surge would work, but took the opposite position out of political calculation.
Senator Obama still cannot quite bring himself to admit his own failure in judgment. Nor has he been willing to heed the guidance of General Petraeus, or to listen to our troops on the ground when they say — as they have said to me on my trips to Iraq: “Let us win, just let us win.” Instead, Senator Obama commits the greater error of insisting that even in hindsight, he would oppose the surge. Even in retrospect, he would choose the path of retreat and failure for America over the path of success and victory.
Once again, it’s a game of “find the hidden attack on Obama’s patriotism.” McCain rightly points out that Obama is still wrong about the surge, in the face of all the evidence, and that if his counsel had been followed, we would have lost in Iraq. All true, and certainly not flattering to Obama. But what’s patriotism got to do with it?
Behind all of these claims and positions by Senator Obama lies the ambition to be president. What’s less apparent is the judgment to be commander in chief.
So Obama is more notable for ambition than for judgment–a fair evaluation in my opinion, but in any event hardly an attack on his patriotism. This is the last time McCain mentioned his opponent:
I suppose from my opponent’s vantage point, veterans’ concerns are just one more issue to be spun or worked to advantage. This would explain why he has also taken liberties with my position on the GI Bill.
So McCain thinks Obama is a spinner; it’s fair to infer that he considers Obama a slippery character. But an unpatriotic slippery character? Obama protests too much.
For what it’s worth, McCain never spoke the word “patriotism” in his VFW speech, or, for that matter, the word “character.” Note, too, how Obama seeks to equate attacks on any aspect of a candidate’s character with attacks on his patriotism. This is silly: any election, especially a Presidential election, rightly involves an assessment of each candidate’s character. Most people think McCain’s character is superior to Obama’s, or, at a minimum, more thoroughly tested. Obama therefore tries to take the absurd position that character should be off the table.
In his VFW speech, Obama explicitly claimed that he, unlike McCain, has taken the high road in the campaign. But how true is that claim? Yesterday, while McCain delivered the VFW speech to which Obama so strenuously objected, what was Obama saying about his opponent?
Democrat Barack Obama berated his White House rival John McCain Monday as an out-of-touch economic illiterate, hardening his attacks in the pre-convention runup to his pick of a running mate. …
Obama noted McCain’s proud boast that he always put the country rather than politics first, a line that the Republican has used to lambast his opponent over the war in Iraq.
“But I have to say it’s not an example of putting country first when you say (President) George Bush’s economic policies have shown ‘great progress’,” he said….
“Mr McCain, let me explain to you, the economic disaster is happening right now. Maybe you haven’t noticed,” Obama said. …”This guy obviously does not pump his own gas, he obviously does not do his own shopping, he obviously does not pay his own bills,” he said.
Obama comes across as a whiner who is happy to dish out personal attacks, but thinks he should be entitled to some kind of immunity. I suspect that he played the patriotism card because he knows how vulnerable he is both on foreign policy and on character, and is hoping to delegitimize, or at least fend off, any criticisms in those areas as attacks on his patriotism. It isn’t going to work.
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