McCain's America

If the McCain campaign is still trying out songs, there's one by a couple of Brits, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, that it should consider. We have to change the words "an Englishman" to "American" to get it to work, but, that done, the song expresses succinctly and entirely the case for John McCain and, by implication, against Barack Obama:

For he himself has said it,
And it's greatly to his credit,
That he is American!
That he is American!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the sum total of the Republican message this year. That is why McCain's first post-primary ad proclaimed him "the American president Americans have been waiting for." Not the "strong" or "experienced" president, though those are contrasts he could seek to draw with Obama. The "American" president -- because that's the only contrast through which McCain has even a chance of prevailing.

Now, I mean to take nothing away from McCain's Americanness by noting that it's Obama's story that represents a triumph of specifically American identity over racial and religious identity. It was the lure of America, the shining city on a hill, that brought his black Kenyan father here, where he met Obama's white Kansan mother. It is because America is uniquely the land of immigrants and has moved beyond a racial caste system that Obama exists, has thrived and stands a good chance of being our next president.

That's not the America, though, that the Republicans refer to in proclaiming their own Americanness. For them, "American" is a term to be used as a wedge issue, a way to distinguish their more racially and religiously homogeneous party from the historically more polyglot Democrats. Such separation has a long pedigree: Campaigning for GOP presidential nominee Alf Landon in 1936, Republican leader Frank Knox said that the Democratic Party under President Franklin Roosevelt "has been seized by alien and un-American elements. Next November, you will choose the American way."

Knox meant two things: that the New Deal represented an ideology outside the pale of American thinking and that the New Deal coalition, which represented record numbers of foreign-born, non-Protestant Americans, was therefore un-American. In more recent elections, Republicans have depicted Democratic presidential candidates as un-American cultural elitists heading up a dangerously diverse party.

This year, we can expect to see almost nothing but these kinds of assaults as the campaign progresses. The Republican attack against Obama all but ignores the issue differences between the candidates to go after what is presumably his inadequately American identity. He is, writes one leading conservative columnist, "out of touch with everyday America." His reluctance to wear a flag pin, writes another, shows that he "has declared himself superior to an almost universal form of popular patriotism."

There are good reasons Republicans are focusing on identity rather than issues this year: In poll after poll, there's not a single major issue on which the public agrees with them or their presumptive nominee. Not Iraq, certainly. Not the economy. Should the election turn on the question of "What are you going to do for America?" rather than "Are you a real American?" Republicans are doomed. They offer no solutions for the stagnation (or decline) of American living standards, or for the weakening of America's economic power. They offer no resolution to America's war of choice in Iraq. Their party leader, the incumbent president, let a great American city drown. They are the American party, and McCain the American nominee, that hasn't a clue about how to help America in its (prolonged, I fear) moment of need.

What remains for the GOP is a campaign premised more on issues of national identity, aimed largely at that portion of our population for which "American" is synonymous with "white" and "Christian," than any national campaign has been since the American Party (also known as the Know Nothings) based its 1856 campaign chiefly on Protestant bigotry against Irish and German Catholic immigrants. In Appalachian America (the heart of which went to the polls yesterday in West Virginia), as Mark Schmitt notes in the forthcoming issue of the American Prospect (which I edit), a disproportionate number of people write "American" when answering the census question on ethnic origin. For some, "American" is a race -- white -- no less than a nationality, and it's on this equation that Republican prospects depend.

Which is why Gilbert and Sullivan penned what could be the perfect McCain marching song:

But in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations,
He remains American!
He remains American!

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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