The Democrats' Patriotism Problem
Whining about imagined attacks is not a winning approach.

The Wall Street Journal, Monday, August 30, 2004

NEW YORK--President Bush may or may not get a "bounce" out of his convention here this week, but one suspects John Kerry is grateful for a respite after weeks of pounding by Vietnam veterans angry over his past antiwar activities and his present war-hero braggadocio. Before we turn our sights to the festivities at Madison Square Garden, it's worth pausing to consider how the Democrats ended up in this mess. Why did they nominate a candidate whose almost obsessive invocation of Vietnam made it all but inevitable that this decades-old war would become a central issue in the campaign?

The answer, simply put, is that the Democratic Party has a problem with patriotism, a problem that Mr. Kerry's status as a decorated Vietnam veteran was supposed to obviate.

To say that the Democrats have a problem with patriotism is not to say that they are unpatriotic. But they are awfully defensive about their patriotism. "Of course the vice president is questioning my patriotism," Michael Dukakis fumed during a 1988 presidential debate. "And I resent it." After Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia lost his 2002 re-election bid, it became part of Democratic (and journalistic) folklore that he owed his ouster to GOP attacks on his patriotism. And last month in Boston, Mr. Kerry declared: "We have an important message for those who question the patriotism of Americans who offer a better direction for our country. . . . We are here to affirm that when Americans stand up and speak their minds and say America can do better, that is not a challenge to patriotism; it is the heart and soul of patriotism."

In fact, these men had been criticized by their GOP opponents not over patriotism but over policy: Gov. Dukakis's veto of a Pledge of Allegiance bill, Sen. Cleland's vote against creating the Homeland Security Department over the absence of union privileges for workers in the new agency, and Sen. Kerry's 19-year record on defense, especially his vote last year against funding the military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Surely it is fair for any politician to take issue with his opponent's official acts. And if those acts were motivated by something other than antipathy toward America--as any fair-minded observer must presume they were--they could have been defended on their merits. Instead, Democrats themselves raised the issue of patriotism by defensively denying that they lacked it. A cardinal rule of political communication is never to repeat an accusation in the course of denying it ("I am not a crook"). These candidates "repeated" a charge no one had even made.

Contrast this with the way Republicans responded during the primary season when Democrats did question their patriotism. "I'm tired of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and a bunch of people who went out of their way to avoid their chance to serve [in the military] when they had the chance," Mr. Kerry declared in April. Earlier, Wesley Clark refused to renounce a supporter's claim that Mr. Bush was a "deserter." And Howard Dean flatly stated: "John Ashcroft is not a patriot."

Republicans didn't care--and why should they? No one seriously believes Messrs. Ashcroft, Bush, Cheney and Rove are unpatriotic. When Messrs. Clark, Dean and Kerry question their opponents' patriotism, it has some mild shock value but carries no real sting, like a child trying out a naughty word he's just learned.

So why do Democrats feel so vulnerable on the issue of patriotism? This question takes us back to the 1960s and, yes, Vietnam. That war, which a Democratic president escalated, split the party, costing it the presidency in 1968. By 1972 the countercultural left was firmly established as a part of the Democratic coalition--and it remains so. A significant and vocal minority of the party, that is, believes that America is imperialistic, racist, militaristic, oppressive, etc. These views aren't necessarily unpatriotic; it is possible to love one's country and also be a harsh critic of it. But if dissent can be patriotic, assent is far less complicatedly so.

That's especially true during wartime, when domestic disunity can aid the enemy. Several men who were prisoners of war in Vietnam have said their communist captors used tapes and transcripts of Mr. Kerry's antiwar testimony in an effort to demoralize them during interrogation sessions. These days, overseas opponents of America's war effort cite the agitprop movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" as if it were authoritative--and the Democrats treated the maker of that film as a hero at their convention, where he was an honored guest of Jimmy Carter.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, it seemed possible that the antiwar counterculture was a thing of the past. But old habits die hard, and for the most part the Democratic left soon returned to its Sept. 10 mindset. Democrats nominated John Kerry, respected on the left for his antiwar agitation, on the theory that his war-hero pose would establish his patriotism and be sufficient to compensate for his lack of a muscular foreign policy.

Instead it has raised questions about his character. One veteran quoted in "Unfit for Command" puts the matter pungently: "In 1971-72, for almost 18 months, he stood before the television audiences and claimed that the 500,000 men and women in Vietnam, and in combat, were all villains--there were no heroes. In 2004, one hero from the Vietnam War has appeared, running for president of the United States and commander in chief. It just galls one to think about it."

The Democrats' problem goes deeper than their flawed nominee. Just as in 1968, they are a party divided on questions of war and peace. This didn't matter during the seemingly placid 1990s, but today it puts them at a severe disadvantage. It's difficult to see how they can overcome it.

It should be clear by now, though, that whining about imagined attacks on patriotism is not a winning approach. If it were, Michael Dukakis would be a former president and Max Cleland would not be a former senator.

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