In September of 1988, the presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush decided to demonstrate that their Connecticut Brahmin candidate was positively turgid with patriotism, particularly in comparison to his opponent (a guy with a name that was just too ethnic). So they sent Bush to a flag factory in Verona, New Jersey, where he lovingly fondled Old Glory for the cameras. To any reasonable observer, it was just too much. But Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater, and the rest of the Bush brain trust didn't mind a bit of criticism. They made their point.
It was not the first time a Republican campaign made the argument that their candidate loved America like all good Americans do, while their opponent might not. And more and more, the current campaign, at least from the Republican side, is shaping up like pretty much like every other presidential campaign of the last forty years. You've got your lack of patriotism charges, your elitism charges, your race-baiting, your fear-mongering – all the carefully prepared dishes from the GOP campaign menu. The current target of the patriotism attacks is Barack Obama, but have no doubt that if Hillary Clinton is nominated these particular cannons will be quickly shifted in her direction -- you may have noticed that she does not wear a flag pin!
With a naïveté that might be charming if it did not have real consequences, many Democrats think that presumptive Republican nominee John McCain just has too much integrity to claim that his opponent is somehow less than truly American. Veteran Democratic consultant Jim Jordan, for instance, was quoted in Sunday's Washington Post speculating that John McCain might not "be the kind of man who would play this kind of dishonorable campaign against someone." But we don't have to wonder about whether McCain is too honorable to wield this attack, because he already has.
Like the man he wants to replace, McCain is implementing a strategy based on a division of labor. The most despicable lies (Obama was educated in a fundamentalist madrasah! He refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance!) circulate in anonymous emails and on right-wing websites (and rest assured, right now a team of conservative operatives is assembling a slander strike team on the model of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth). These lies are then blasted, in only slightly less insane form, from every instrument in the right-wing noise machine's marching band, including talk radio and Fox News (and the occasional nincompoop politician).
Finally, you have the candidate himself, who will not come right out and say the things his supporters are saying, but will find ways to cue discussions of his opponent's patriotism by dropping in subtle and not-so-subtle hints on the topic. McCain has already aired ads calling himself "the American president Americans have been waiting for," thereby suggesting that other candidates are either not Americans themselves, or might be the American president foreigners have been waiting for. He has also said, referring to Obama, "I think it's very clear who Hamas wants to be the next president of the United States." (A side note: given how good the Bush presidency has been for Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and pretty much every terrorist group on the planet, there can be little doubt that they'd be much happier with the guy who wants to stay in Iraq and generally continue the Bush foreign policy.)
So there's no need to wonder whether McCain's hand will be stayed by the conscience we have been led to believe lies somewhere within him. He flip-flopped on immigration, the Bush tax cuts, and ethanol because he wants to be president and he knows this is his last chance. He sucked up to repellent radical clerics like Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, and Rod Parsley for exactly the same reason. And if he thinks that attacking his opponent's patriotism is what will get him to the White House, he'll do that too.
You won't, of course, see anyone in the press condemn the Republican nominee for this, and not just because John McCain could strangle a puppy while taking a hit from a crack pipe, and David Broder and Chris Matthews would say it shows what a straight-talking maverick he is. No, the reason the press won't condemn it isn't because of their love for McCain, but because of their absolutely bottomless cynicism. No attack is considered too low, no tactic too unethical. The only question is whether it works. If it does, they will praise it; the only thing they condemn is political failure.
So the Democratic nominee will have to find novel ways to demonstrate his or her patriotism. But what would a president with insufficient patriotism look like? Other qualities we want in a president might be assessed for their relative quantity. Judgment, wisdom, foresight, morality -- of these, it would seem you can't have too much, and the more you've got the better. Yet we're supposed to believe that at some point, an adviser would say to President Obama, "Sir, this is what's best for America," at which he would finger his empty lapel and reply, "America? Eh."
Perhaps the general election debates should feature some sort of patriotism-off, in which the two candidates engage in a competition to prove the depths of their love for this great land of ours. Renditions of "The Star Spangled Banner" could be compared, with extra points given if the candidate cries actual tears. Candidates would then be given a blue towel, a white towel, and a single sewing needle; first one to produce a proper flag, using his or her own blood to dye the red stripes wins. That covers the "American Idol" and "Project Runway" portions of the competition -- don't ask about the dancing.
If the primary debates are any measure, what we'll see in the general election may not be much more edifying, so long as the agenda is being set by the collection of bottom-feeders that populate our press corps (to take just one recent example, when Obama appeared on last Sunday's "Meet the Press," Tim Russert spent the first fifteen minutes asking him question after question about Jeremiah Wright, as though there could possibly be anything more to say on the subject). Again and again, the "issue" of flag pins and the location of hands relative to hearts will be solemnly raised, all justified by the fact that the lamest and most dishonest attacks are "out there." None of it will have anything to do with what the next holder of the world's most powerful post will actually do once reaching office.
But of course, that isn't really the point. Republicans don't raise these attacks every four years because they truly believe that their exists some real relationship between a president's degree of patriotic fervor and the good he'll do for America. Instead, it's one more way of arguing that the Democratic candidate isn't “one of us,” that he stands outside the circle of our tribe. He doesn't share our values, he doesn't speak our language, he doesn't love what we love and hate whom we hate.
And there's one more reason they'll be making these attacks, just as they did in the last election, and the one before that, and the ones before that: because it works.