Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > For GOP, It’s the Patriotism, Stupid

Sep 2, 2012

For GOP, It’s the Patriotism, Stupid


Mitt and Ann Romney on Super Tuesday, 2012. Credit: Flickr.

When an incumbent president is running for re-election and the economy is in the doldrums, what’s a challenger to do? All the pundits and political analysts agree: Focus like a laser on just one issue: the economy, stupid. It worked for Bill Clinton, the last challenger to run against an incumbent during a recession. Any other strategy would indeed be stupid, the common wisdom says.

But there are millions of Americans who don’t know the common wisdom. They tuned into the campaign for the first time when they tuned in to watch Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech, or perhaps earlier bits of the Republican Convention. And they’re not likely to think that Romney's campaign is guided by the famous mantra of Clinton’s 1992 campaign. They probably came away assuming that there’s a very different sign posted in Romney’s campaign headquarters: “It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the patriotism.”

The pundits ignored the patriotism that drenched Romney’s acceptance speech, just as they ignored the chants of “USA! USA!” that punctuated the speech and all those “We believe in America” signs decorating the GOP convention hall. They figured it was just the usual window-dressing required at any Republican convention -- or Democratic convention, for that matter. There will be just as much red-white-and-blue in Charlotte as in Tampa.

But Romney’s speechwriters and strategists are not likely to dismiss their patriotic flourishes as mere window-dressing. They’re not stupid. They’ve got to mobilize their conservative base while appealing to a crucial sliver of voters in the swing states. As the polls consistently show, both those target groups consist mainly of white married people and over-65’s. They’re the only demographics that can give Romney a victory. And they’re not the ones most affected by a weak economy.

The people suffering most from unemployment and underemployment are the young, single women, people of color. If the economy were really the only issue that mattered, and the common wisdom were accurate, Romney should be adding big chunks of these distressed voters to a very big chunk of his conservative base, giving him an easy victory. But the most distressed groups are overwhelmingly for Obama, which suggests that the common wisdom misses the mark.

Romney’s strategists know this. So they have to find some other issues to bring their target voters on board. The social issues of the so-called “culture war” are too dicey to stake a campaign on. Patriotism is absolutely safe. And for years now it has been GOP territory.  “We believe in America” obviously implies the unspoken sequel: “And those others, who chose Barack Hussein Obama as their leader, do not.”

That’s not to say the Romneyites are appealing to racism or anti-Muslimism. No doubt they are happy enough to have such prejudice work in their favor. But there probably isn’t enough of it to swing the election.

What there is, in great abundance among Romney’s target demographics, is a strong feeling that the Democrats lost their patriotism back in the days of Vietnam war. When the Dems picked a vehement opponent of the war, George McGovern, as their presidential candidate, they lost their claim to truly believe in America and they’ve never regained it, as far as Romney’s target voters are concerned. Even the assassination of Osama bin Laden can’t erase that deep conviction, because Obama won’t say the sacred word that Marco Rubio fairly shouted out in introducing the GOP candidate: Romney “understands what makes America exceptional.” 

To be sure, Romney did spend plenty of time in his speech harping on the weak economy. But he wasn’t appealing to people’s personal suffering. Most polls show that a majority of Americans say their own economic situation is OK or even good. When Romney asks Ronald Reagan’s classic question: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”, if the voters answer honestly based only on their own family’s situation, most would say “yes,” or at least “no worse off.” And that’s more likely to be true among Ronney than Obama supporters.

But Romney’s target voters are nervous about their future because they see the nation’s economy as a whole in bad shape. So when he asks that classic question, it’s a coded way of asking, “How do you think America is doing? Is the economy safe? Is America keeping you safe?” He’s raising the issue of national pride, the core of patriotism. And he’s probing the tenderest of political spots among his target voters, their deeply buried sense of national insecurity.

He’s also asking, “Do you think your family is safe?” The biggest applause line of his speech (according to the subjective applause meter in my ears) was his scoffing remark that “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” followed by the powerful punch line: “My promise is to help you and your family.”  How can Democrats be patriotic when they care so much about the whole world?, Romney was asking. True patriots worry about taking care of business at home.

With that the GOP leader tied together the three key elements of his patriotic narrative: American exceptionalism, prosperity through unbridled capitalism, and the safety of the traditional nuclear family. That’s the holy trinity of “the America that we all know,” as Romney put it -- though he should have said, more accurately, the America that we Republicans imagine once existed and still long to believe in, the America we think any true patriot must believe in, too. 

For many of Romney’s target voters, Obama symbolizes profound doubt whether the familiar America of their imagination exists any more or can ever exist again. Romney’s strategists surely understand the anxiety those voters feel about losing the America they belive in. Just as surely, the Romneyites want to raise that anxiety as high as they can between now and Election Day. Romney’s speech and all those “We Believe in America” signs were a strong start.

Obama and his strategists know this well enough. So we are likely to hear the president and other Democrats oozing a patriotism that will make some of their own base a bit queasy. That part of the Dem base has, in truth, been more or less skeptical about unbridled patriotism ever since it carried us into the horror of Vietnam.

But there’s an election to be won. It’s a simple rule of battle strategy: When your opponent rolls out a big gun, if you’ve got the same gun in your arsenal, you fire back with it every chance you get.

The two candidates’ visions of patriotism are hardly the same, though. In Obama’s rhetoric, the holy trinity is American leadership-in-partnership, prosperity through cooperation, and the safety of families of every kind, both traditional and not.

The real story of Election ‘12 may turn out to be not just a referendum on the economy nor a choice between two ideas about government’s role, but also -- perhaps most importantly -- a choice between two visions of what it means to be a patriotic American. 

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