Commentary Magazine


The Un-Obama

Mickey Kaus thinks two negative themes are percolating about Barack Obama. The first: he lacks “moral courage” — “he won’t speak up against his own church’s victim mentality until he absolutely has to.” The second: he is arrogant. (Again, he cannot “even admit to the slightest mistake in the Wright affair.”)

There is plenty of evidence for both the courage problem (e.g. he really knows NAFTA didn’t cost America jobs, but couldn’t level with Ohio voters) and the arrogance (e.g. only he is above all the corruption of Washington and only through him can we achieve “change”). And John McCain is already making the case that he is the un-Obama on exactly these points.

On the courage front, McCain has two aces in the hole. The first, of course, is his personal valor and courage in war. The second, which was a liability in the primary but now a virtue in the general election, is his determination to maintain his own principled positions (e.g. on immigration and torture) to his political detriment and to tell voters “no — and I really mean it.” (He’ll tell anyone “no” – Michigan autoworkers, Florida coastal inhabitants and lots of homeowners.)

As Abe pointed out, his very first general election ad features POW footage and includes the rhetorical questions: “Where has he been? Has he walked the walk?” The message here is clear: he is personally and politically brave. That message resonates with particular power when his likely opponent is being asked to account for why he did not condemn or exit the church of his race baiting mentor. ( The ultimate contrast: the man who couldn’t summon the courage to leave the church vs. the man who refused to accept an offer of early release from the Hanoi Hilton.)

As for the arrogance, McCain often refers to himself as an “imperfect servant” of the country he loves. After his victories in the Potomac primaries he explained:

When I was a young man, I thought glory was the highest ambition, and that all glory was self-glory. My parents tried to teach me otherwise, as did the Naval Academy. But I didn’t understand the lesson until later in life, when I confronted challenges I never expected to face.In that confrontation I discovered that I was dependent on others to a greater extent than I had ever realized, but that neither they nor the cause we served made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, I discovered that nothing is more liberating in life than to fight for a cause that encompasses you, but is not defined by your existence alone. And that has made all the difference, my friends, all the difference in the world.I do not seek the presidency on the presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need. I seek the presidency with the humility of a man who cannot forget that my country saved me. I am running to serve America, and to champion the ideas I believe will help us do what every American generation has managed to do: to make in our time, and from our challenges, a stronger country and a better world.

Now this, I think, is more than humility; it is an exercise in differentiation. Could there be any greater contrast between the real hero who rejects egocentrism and an opponent who fancies himsef the savior of our political system, who has created a creepy cult of personality and whose wife tells us only he has evoked pride in our country? McCain, it seems, is on to Obama’s weaknesses and intends to tell Americans exactly how different he is from his opponent.