It was January 2009, and millions had filled the Mall outside the Capitol to see the swearing in of the first African American President. For three months or so, from November 2008 to February 2009, a new excitement had swept America. The phrase "proud to be an American" was something you heard in quantities not since 9/11. Facing the worst recession since the Great Depression, two wars, and a a laundry list of domestic and international problems, Americans were ready for, yes, "change."
Republicans were silent and confused, facing a bizarre political hangover wondering what had happened the night before. They had just faced a bruising not only political, but ideological. It had appeared Americans had rejected, in great numbers, what their party had stood for. The boisterous and proud Republican elephant had been humbled in a way they were not used to. For years, they controlled Washington, and now, Democrats had stolen their line. The "I love America" line.
It's been over a year now since the inauguration, and the political tides have drastically turned. The Tea Party Movement, the election of Scott Brown, Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, etc, have given the conservative movement a new mojo that could be disastrous for Democrats in the election this fall. The fast and loud, "grass roots" conservative rising is taking advantage of the same strategies the Democrats used in the last election, but now it's coming from those in the deep red states whose lawn is never complete without an American flag. And more over they feel, they are taking their line back.
Throughout modern American history it's been a prerequisite for those running for office to tout their love of their country. This happens in both parties, though the stereotype is that Republicans have a firmer grasp on this narrative than the Democrats do. The cliche usually stands that Republicans are stronger, more patriotic than their Democrat brethren. It was this sense of pride and nationalism, bolstered to practically unforeseen heights by 9/11, that allowed George W. Bush to be elected to a second term, and subsequently the passage of most of his policies. But in the 2006 and 2008 elections, Democrats managed to steal the nationalism narrative from the Republicans, and with Barack Obama's rhetorical flourishes and personal story, were able to take the White House and huge majorities in Congress.
Obama's upward rise can be traced to his recognition early on that Republicans were holding this narrative. His now famous, "There are no red states, no blue states," speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention not only put his face on the national stage, but was the first step in a new Democratic strategy of taking back the country by trying to shatter the image that liberals didn't love America (Something that was easy for Republicans to say in post-9/11 paranoia). It was a message that John Kerry touched upon, but the combination of his delivery and the political climate at the time created an environment that let Democrats lose, again. But in 2006, and especially in 2008, Obama and the Democrats' message rang especially true with young voters with no real memory beyond the Bush years, and many for the first time believing that they had a real reason to feel patriotic. John McCain's "Country First," campaign failed to ignite the typical conservative flag waving in mass numbers the Bush people could in 2004, for much of the same delivery and political climate reasons the Kerry campaign failed . Importantly, Obama was also able to go on the attack much more fiercely against the Republicans then say, Kerry or Al Gore could. His 2008 Democratic Convention speech, and pretty much his whole campaign, was loaded with harsh knockout punches. For the first time since probably Bill Clinton in 1992, Democrats were taking the role of the aggressor, the fighter, kicking ass for America. It's a perception voters love, cause they feel like they're kicking ass too. And who doesn't love to feel like they're kicking ass?
It was a certain confused embarrassment conservatives felt a year ago after Obama's election that has fueled this "new" conservative movement. The brief and intense liberal patriotism at the time must have been something bewildering for them. For all the talk of bringing the country together, it was Obama's tough talk that alienated conservatives. Now they're angrier then ever, and trying to reclaim their narrative. In all the angry town hall protests the health care debate caused last August, and in all the Obama/Hitler poster Tea Party rallies, the phrase "taking back our country" is used over, and over again. It's the same thing Obama said a year ago.
Obama's base among voters is split. The far left is furious, feeling betrayed on a variety of fronts from the continuation of Bush war/national security policies, health care, climate change, almost everything. His more moderate supporters are strangely (or not so strangely) silent, probably out of a return to apathy (when was the last time you heard your buddy say they were "proud to be an American?"). Even with an enormous Democratic majority, with the election of Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy's senate seat, Congress is in a bizarre and unprecedented legislative grid lock, Republicans refusing to cede any ground, and Democrats fighting amongst themselves. (In an interesting side note, Patrick Kennedy, Ted Kennedy's son, said he will not be seeking reelection to his Rhode Island congressional seat. He called Scott Brown's election "a joke," and there is a kind of heart breaking picture of him at the State of the Union, looking sort of befuddled and lonely.)
Conservatives are reclaiming the tough guy mantle, the Hard On for America mantle, with a vocal ferocity. Kind of ironic considering the progressive views, conservatives' claim the government is overreaching everywhere, from the stimulus to health care. More over though, they use it in the national security debate. With the Christmas Day bomber incident, they have tried to paint the Obama administration as weak on terror, Dick Cheney claiming the president "Pretends we are not at war." These attacks are baseless considering Obama's virtually unaltered continuation of Bush national security procedures, and huge escalations in the Afghanistan war and drone attacks in Pakistan. Joe Biden on Face the Nation today said just this. In 2008 it would be unimaginable to think an Obama official would be desperately claiming to be continuing Bush policies considering the political distancing both parties tried to do that year from the administration.
It is a sign of the 2010 political times. This election year, both parties will use nationalism as a political platform. It would be wise for Democrats to capitalize on that new found patriotism many voters felt with Obama, though it is kind of sad they would have to. The "who loves America more" argument, is not only intellectually shallow, but mainly irrelevant. Rush Limbaugh and other far right figures claim literally every day that the Obama Administration hates America. The right has taken the claim that Democrats are going out of their way to dismantle the state of the country because they do not love it. A conspiracy from Obama, Rahm Emannuel, Eric Holder, and the rest of the "Chicago Gang." Do they honestly think this? It is amazing people could buy this, but it is happening more and more every day.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with loving your country. But after all, America in itself is an idea, probably more so than any other country in the world. It is distracting and immature to essentially debate who loves this idea more. It is certain though, the Tea Baggers will be out in full force this election year, discovering what the internet is, and marching with a kind of happiness and relief, making damn sure everybody knows they love America the most.