Richard Cohen asks the trenchant question of his fellow Democrats in his opening paragraph today, and the answer recalls a Hillary Clinton dismissal of Barack Obama:

“Just tell me one thing Barack Obama has done that you admire,” I asked a prominent Democrat. He paused and then said that he admired Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention in 2004. I agreed. It was a hell of a speech, but it was just a speech.

Just what has Obama accomplished in his political career?  What stand has he taken, what policy has he promulgated into law?  Cohen is at a loss to find anything that Obama has done to differentiate himself enough to run for President.  On the other hand, Cohen says he has no problem answering that question regarding McCain:

On the other hand, I continued, I could cite four or five actions — not speeches — that John McCain has taken that elicit my admiration, even my awe. First, of course, is his decision as a Vietnam prisoner of war to refuse freedom out of concern that he would be exploited for propaganda purposes. To paraphrase what Kipling said about Gunga Din, John McCain is a better man than most.

But I would not stop there. I would include campaign finance reform, which infuriated so many in his own party; opposition to earmarks, which won him no friends; his politically imprudent opposition to the Medicare prescription drug bill (Medicare has about $35 trillion in unfunded obligations); and, last but not least, his very early call for additional troops in Iraq. His was a lonely position — virtually suicidal for an all-but-certain presidential candidate and no help when his campaign nearly expired last summer. In all these cases, McCain stuck to his guns.

McCain has also changed his position on other issues, as Cohen notes.  He now supports the Bush tax cuts he originally opposed, which Cohen chalks up to pandering — but Cohen misses a point here.  McCain acknowledges that he changed his position, and he has explained why: because, McCain says, they worked.  As Cohen runs through Obama’s policy shifts, he doesn’t note that crucial difference.   Obama changes positions while trying to convince people he hasn’t changed at all.

That doesn’t make Obama an “unknown”, as Cohen’s headline reads, but a cipher.  Obama deliberately obfuscates his positions in order to make his outlook as opaque as possible.  One has to wonder why a man with no track record seems as reticent to reveal at least his political philosophies in a clear and concise manner.  Investors Business Daily thinks it knows the answer:

Before friendly audiences, Barack Obama speaks passionately about something called “economic justice.” He uses the term obliquely, though, speaking in code — socialist code.

During his NAACP speech earlier this month, Sen. Obama repeated the term at least four times. “I’ve been working my entire adult life to help build an America where economic justice is being served,” he said at the group’s 99th annual convention in Cincinnati.

And as president, “we’ll ensure that economic justice is served,” he asserted. “That’s what this election is about.” Obama never spelled out the meaning of the term, but he didn’t have to. His audience knew what he meant, judging from its thumping approval.

Is Obama a socialist?  Again, with the lack of a track record, it’s not easy to determine.  “Economic justice” as a prime issue in the election certainly indicates a strong impulse for interventionism and redistributionism.  It’s the kind of rhetoric that implies a role for government to pick winners and losers in the economic markets, and to accelerate confiscatory policies as a means of accomplishing it.

Cohen writes that the next President will have to be a “man of steel” who can stick to tough positions and tell Americans what they don’t want to hear.  Which of these two men has the character to do that?  Better yet, which of these two men have a track record in doing that?  Hint: It’s not the cipher whose commitment to any position is transitory at best, and expedient in almost all cases.

Update: Tom Maguire calls Obama “the biggest faith-based initiative in American politics.”