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What Martin O’Malley’s Flag Lapel Pin Says About Him. (And, no, it’s not that he’s really, really patriotic.)

Little John

April 28, 2015 4:53 pm

Yeah Bruce. Hillary is probably jumping out of her skin in joyous celebration.

Beverly Mann

April 28, 2015 11:33 pm

She should be, Little John. I’ve soured on O’Malley after reading a long article in the Washington Post a couple of days ago about his policing innovations–such as arresting teenagers for loitering and for trivial littering. What a great idea! I’m, suffice it to say, no Hillary Clinton fan, so me ditching my support for the only viable alternative to her is a good indicator, probably.

Exchange between reader Little John and me in the Comments thread to Bruce Webb’s April 27 post titled “Martin O’Malley was Mayor of Baltimore 1999-2007

Last month, in a post in which I called Hillary Clinton’s campaign-announcement video banal and incoherent, I mentioned a longstanding joke that my father and I had about a completely content-free television ad that Michael Dukakis ran late in the 1988 general election campaign.  Specifically, I wrote:

My late father (no less a politics junkie and frustrated liberal than is his daughter) and I had a longstanding joke dating back to the 1988 Michael Dukakis campaign.  The ad, a short one, 30 seconds, probably, shown late in the general-election campaign, began with the camera showing … something; I no longer recall what the video showed, but I think maybe it was just Dukakis speaking into the camera, and with Dukakis saying … something.  I don’t recall the specifics of what his first sentences were, other than that they were unspecific.  But the last three sentences were, if I remember right, “That’s not a Democratic concern.  That’s not a Republican concern.  That’s a father’s concern.”

Actually, I do remember, precisely, that final sentence, since it served as the punchline of our standing joke.  Which had to do with the fact that the ad gave no clue to what the “that” was.  The first time or two that you saw the ad, you thought you simply had missed what the “that” was.  But you had not missed what the “that” was.  Dukakis had missed including it.

I began to think about that ad again around the time last fall when most of the political reports about Clinton said she planned to run as a grandmother.  (“That’s a grandmother’s concern.”)

That campaign is infamous both for Dukakis’s campaign’s stunning ineptitude and George H.W. Bush’s hallmark soft-on-crime race-baiting and Democrats-are-unpatriotic themes.  The latter which reminds me, again, of my father, a good-humored, soft-spoken man who also was an Army combat veteran. And who watched in dismay as Bush methodically appropriated as Republican Party symbols the American flag and other superficial symbols of patriotism.  Watching the TV news with him one evening as Bush was shown once again standing on a stage next to his wife and the huge flag-scarf she wore as they both, right hands on their hearts, recited the Pledge of Allegiance*, my father said through gritted teeth that he hoped that the next time this country was at war the military assign only Republicans to combat zones, and that if the country ever reinstituted a draft, it exempt Democrats.

The male-politicians-must-wear flag-lapel-pins thing was born during that campaign, a brainchild of Lee Atwater, its purpose to demean Democratic politicians, and liberal Democrats, as un-American.  And its success is reflected on the suit jacket lapel of every Democratic politician who wears one. Including Martin O’Malley’s.

There is exactly one Democratic politician who wears one whom I exempt from my distain for the cravenness that wearing one of those things indicates, and it’s not Martin O’Malley.  It’s instead Barack Obama, because I happen to remember why and roughly when he began wearing one.  During his political career, up until either late in the 2008 campaign or shortly after the election (I can’t remember which), he made a point of rejecting the political fad, for the reasons that my father had expressed back in 1988.  But sometime late in the 2008 campaign, or shortly after the election, he was approached by an active Marine or a Marine veteran of the Iraq war (again, I can’t remember which), who handed him a flag lapel pin and asked that he wear it until all the troops were home from combat zones (in other words, until these wars, or America’s part in them, were over).  The Marine said he hoped the lapel pin would remind Obama every day of the Armed Forces members who are in combat zones.  Obama agreed to do that.

The problem, though, not with Obama’s acquiescence to that request but with the flag lapel pins themselves, is that as symbols they actually have no tie-in whatsoever with military service or any other actual act of patriotism. Anyone can wear a silly, cheap piece of jewelry.  Dick Cheney, who declined the invitation to serve in the military during the Vietnam War because, he said, there were other things he wanted to do, and who has worn a flag lapel pin for decades now, is no more a patriot than was my father, who wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing one.  And no more a patriot than was O’Malley’s father, a combat pilot during WWII and probably a lifelong Democrat, who also likely never wore a flag lapel pin.  Someone should ask O’Malley why the hell he began wearing one of those things—and why on earth he thinks that as he runs for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 he should wear one.

Those are two separate questions. The answer to the first is obvious: He thought it was obligatory in the ‘90s and G.W. Bush era for male politicians to wear one, even though—well, actually, precisely because—it’s subtly insulting to Democrats.  Presumably the answer to the second question is that he thinks it’s still obligatory for male politicians to wear one.

Which gets to what his decision to wear one while campaigning for the 2016 Democratic nomination for president says about him.  Which is that he thinks that, with a few exceptions here and there, it’s still, and forever will be, 1988.  It suggests in turn that he may well lack the mental agility to run successfully as a genuine progressive.  Maybe because he really is not one.  Or maybe because cravenness is intrinsic to his personality.  I don’t know enough about him to know which shoe fits, or whether either does.

My comment to Little John in that comments exchange I quoted at the opening of this post notwithstanding, I haven’t actually decided which of the two to support.  I actually care even more about issues concerning and related to the judicial system, criminal and civil, state and federal—police conduct; prosecutor conduct; criminal laws (including sentencing); outrageous traffic fines and court fees; the near-total nullification of the Constitution’s habeas corpus protection in state-court prosecutions; myriad other aspects of criminal and civil court proceedings; institutionalized brutality in American prisons; access to civil court; court-fabricated jurisdictional, quasi-jurisdictional, and other procedural and legal-immunity doctrines; the effective abolishment of the American Rule regarding payment of opposing counsel’s fees in civil lawsuits; and such—than I do about the more direct economic-policy issues.

Which is saying a lot, considering my strong feelings about direct economic-policy issues.

What will determine my candidate preference—and I’m sure, that of many, many other progressives—is the extent to which the respective candidate understands, I mean really understands, that this is a new political era.  And the degree to which the candidate is capable of using, and willing to use, specifics to refute Republican clichés. O’Malley seems more adept at the latter, at least partly because he is so much more spontaneous—far less packaged and scripted.  But he wears a flag lapel pin and he continues to sing the praises of his mayoral arrest-teens-for-littering-or-loitering policies.

So, yes, right now I’m leaning toward Clinton.  She may be craven, but at least she doesn’t wrap herself in a tin flag.

*Mitt Romney, who like Cheney found exemptions from the draft during the Vietnam War, liked to stand, hand on heart, and recite the Pledge during his 2012 general-election campaign appearances. Maybe O’Malley’s trying for all those votes the tactic got for Romney. 

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Post edited slightly and typo-corrected. 5/15 at 9:31 p.m.

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