Patriotism – last refuge of scoundrels, and undoing of Democratic candidates

Declaring their love of the US is one of the most powerful weapons in the Republicans' arsenal – and it's forcing Obama on to the centre ground

On Independence Day weekends in presidential election years, the ritual is normally immutable. The candidates tour the heartland, dutifully down their hot dogs and hamburgers, and, on this most patriotic of national holidays, declare their undying love for America and all it stands for. The country, meanwhile, gets on with the barbecues, parades and fireworks, and pays not a blind bit of attention.

This time, though, there's a difference. In American politics, patriotism is the most potent of issues – and in 2008, a number of Americans seem to harbour some doubt over whether the love of the US on the part of one candidate is quite as wholesome and undying as it should be. Which is why Barack Obama, Democrat and possibly the most liberal member of the US Senate, has spent the past week on a mission to plant his own flag in the safe, indisputably patriotic, political centre.

His travels have been as instructive geographically as ideologically. First was Independence, Missouri, heartland home town of Harry Truman, that most down-to-earth of American Presidents. There, Mr Obama proclaimed his "deep and abiding love for this country". Then he was in Ohio, talking up faith-based social service, an issue so dear to America's Christian "moral majority".

Then on to Colorado Springs, a town that lives and breathes the US armed forces. In case anyone missed the point, the next day in North Dakota he was talking up the need to look after America's veterans better. Rounding things off was Independence Day itself – 4 July, which he chose to spend in Montana, "Big Sky Country" and symbol of the mythical Old West, so tightly bound up with America's image of itself.

Mr Obama's precautions are wise. Dr Johnson described patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel; in the US it is the first resort of the Republicans come election time.

The strategy is not new. Back in the 1950s, candidate Adlai Stevenson rashly ventured that patriotism was about loving America, not hating the Russians. For his pains he was branded an appeaser (much as Mr Obama is now for having offered to talk with the Iranians) and was twice thrashed at the polls by Dwight Eisenhower. George McGovern might have been a Second World War veteran, but unlike his 1972 opponent Richard Nixon, he failed to wear a flag pin in his lapel and lost by a landslide. In 1988, the patriotism issue helped doom Michael Dukakis, as the Republicans seized on the fact that, as Governor of Massachusetts, he had opposed a measure making the pledge of allegiance obligatory in state classrooms.

September 11th only upped the stakes. George W Bush played the card ruthlessly in the 2002 mid-term elections, implying that anyone (like Mr Obama) who opposed his impending invasion was unpatriotic. Two years after that the infamous "Swift Boat" campaign managed to turn decorated Vietnam war hero John Kerry (below) into a slippery agent of influence for foreigners – even though Kerry had voted back in autumn 2002 in favour of attacking Iraq.

In every case, there are two common threads. Each victim was a Democrat, targeted as a liberal, and therefore "un-American". And each time, the Democrat lost. In a year when they were inevitably going to face a desperate fight to hang on to the White House, and when their man John McCain, tortured prisoner of war in Vietnam, is the embodiment of patriotism, you could bet a thousand stars to a stripe that they would try it again.

Mr Obama hasn't always helped his cause. For a long while he not only did not wear the magic flag pin, but in no uncertain terms explained why. "Shortly after 9/11," he declared last year, and particularly over the Iraq war, the pin "became a substitute ... for true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to national security". True patriotism, he said, was to set out the right thing for the country to do.

Herein lies a crucial difference between Republican and Democratic, or "liberal", concepts of patriotism. The former comes close to asserting that "My country, by definition, can do no wrong." Less respectful of the past, the liberal version looks to the future.

Mr Obama is vulnerable, however, on both counts. There were the anti-American diatribes from the pulpit of his minister, the Rev Jeremiah Wright, whom the candidate was forced to disown. Then Michelle Obama remarked that her husband's candidacy had "for the first time" made her feel proud of her country.

Permeating everything is his exotic background – his Kenyan father, his Indonesian stepfather, and part of his childhood spent in the world's most populous Muslim country. A further complication is his race, whose true impact will be measured only when the returns flow in on the night of 4 November.

One thing, though, is clear. If patriotism helped to scupper John Kerry, what might it not do to an African-American – whom one in 10 Americans, the polls say, thinks is a closet Muslim? Whether or not the McCain campaign is behind the rumours is beside the point. It's up to Obama himself not to repeat Kerry's mistake in 2004, when he let the patriotism poison fester. He has to fight back – and he is.

In speeches, Obama takes on the whispering campaigns head on. His staff have also set up a website, fightthesmears.com, designed to scotch untrue allegations – such as the supposed existence of a tape in which Michelle denounces "whitey". Last but not least, and like every candidate in every general election, he is moving towards the centre. The flag pin is now firmly back in his lapel. To the dismay of many liberals, he is taking more conservative positions on issues such as guns and warrantless government wiretapping of terrorism suspects. He even hints that his former 16-month deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq is no longer set in stone.

Inevitably, the dreaded cry of "flip-flop" now reverberates through the land. Mr Obama, the commentators say, is just another opportunist candidate, ready to say what pleases the immediate audience, regardless of what he said before; how can he be trusted when in office? To which, in the case of Iraq, he may reply to his critics as did John Maynard Keynes, when attacked for shifting his position on government intervention in the economy. "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

More to the point, flip-flopping is a rite of presidential election summers. McCain, too, is flapping around like a live trout on a fishmonger's slab. You could almost say it's patriotic.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Two christmas trees ,Moonbeam (2L), Moonchester (2R) and Santa Claus outside the Etihad Stadium
footballAll the action from today's games
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas