Patriotism is not always the last refuge of the scoundrel. Sometimes it's just the last refuge of a frightened politician.
Barack Obama, hotly pursued by his preacher and the crazy preacher's aggressive racism, has revised his stump speech. His once formidable polling lead over Hillary Clinton has dwindled to the single digits. The man who wouldn't wear a tiny American flag on his lapel is looking for a flag pin the size of a bass fiddle.
"You want to know who I am?" he asked a crowd in North Carolina this week. "You want to know what's in me? It's a love of country that made my life possible. It's a belief in the American dream."
All no doubt true. But the senator's own dream, which only a fortnight ago looked so dreamy, has begun to feel more like a nightmare. He was leading in North Carolina by 25 points unrealistic then, to be sure and yesterday that lead had shrunk to 14 points (Rasmussen), 12 (Public Policy Polling) or even to 5 (Survey USA), depending on which pollster you believe.
Worse, a poll taken for New York Times-CBS News shows a spectacular decline in the number of voters who think Sen. Obama is the inevitable Democratic nominee. (Hillary was once inevitable, too, so inevitability is not always reliable.) A month ago, nearly 70 percent of the Democrats expected Sen. Obama to be their nominee; now barely half (51 percent) do. Worst of all, such a turnaround comes only five days before crucial primaries in North Carolina and Indiana. The big 'mo is not always everything, but it's always a lot.
Even if he loses both primaries, not likely, it's difficult to see how Hillary can take him. He'll have the delegates and probably even the popular votes, and if the superdelegates override the primaries the mischief in the party won't be repaired for generations, even if there aren't riots in Harlem, on the South Side of Chicago, in Watts and in lots of other little Harlems in between. But the Republicans have stumbled into nominating the only man who could win in November, and all the Republicans have to do to preserve an authentic shot at keeping the White House is to save the unpredictable John McCain from John McCain; there's always the chance that he'll morph into Mr. Nice Guy in a fit of civility and an effusion of good manners in the middle of the high road.
The Obama problem continues to be the blabbermouth preacher who isn't likely to go away. He even has a book coming in October. The more the senator tries to extricate himself from the orbit and embrace of Jeremiah Wright, the more the odor clings (so to speak) to him. He sat down at a picnic table in a park in Indianapolis this week with a few dozen supporters to talk about the economy. These were men and women who would have been glassy-eyed only a few days earlier, awed by sitting on the same grass with the man who was about to save America from America. The first question was about the price of gasoline. Then the barrage began. Everybody wanted to talk about the explosion of the Wright stuff.
"The situation with Reverend Wright was difficult," he said. "I won't lie to you. We want to make sure this isn't a perpetual distraction." But perpetuity threatens nevertheless. He tried to explain why it took him 20 years to discover that his pastor, the man who presided at his marriage and who baptized his two daughters, was a pastor whose views were "appalling" and "unacceptable."
Hillary understands that when your opponent is laming himself the best strategy is to get out of his way. Earlier in the week, she described the Wright stuff as "outrageous," "off base," and "far out," describing until she exhausted her thesaurus. By the end of the week, she resisted a television interviewer's attempt to get her to find more adjectives to hurl.
Nearly everyone, save a few of the liberal pastors who preach to empty pews, is having a high old time denouncing and decrying Jeremiah Wright and generally viewing with alarm. But he's only one of the chickens from the past beginning to flutter down to roost in the Obama campaign. How many more are on final approach?