Who Holds the Patriotism Card?

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by Patrick J. Buchanan – October 10, 2002

Whatever the wisdom of having a president beat the drums for war, America’s preoccupation with war on Iraq alone prevents a wipeout of the Republican Party in November. War is good politics.

While Sept. 11 was a terrible day for America, that day has defined this Bush presidency. His address to Congress and the triumphant war in Afghanistan have secured him in the hearts and minds of our people as the man to lead us in this war on terror.

Thus, the patriotism card has passed again to the Republican Party, where it has resided, like a Stanley Cup, for half a century.

Sixty-one years ago, on Dec. 8, 1941, FDR wrenched the patriotism card away from the America First Committee. Its “isolationism” – i.e., its determination to keep America out of the Sino-Japanese and Hitler-Stalin wars – had been considered the highest patriotism.

FDR then savaged the isolationists for an unpreparedness for which he himself, in power nine years, was responsible and for an attack on Pearl Harbor his own interventionism had provoked.

As war presidents, FDR and Truman held the patriotism card until the revelations that the New Deal had been honeycombed with Soviet spies, and traitors like Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. With Truman’s firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, his “no-win” war in Korea and the Republicans’ nomination of General Eisenhower, a hero of the “Good War,” the patriotism card passed to the GOP.

As Todd Purdum writes in The New York Times: “For most of the (last) 50 years … polls have shown that Americans … trust the Republican party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.'”

John F. Kennedy, PT boat skipper and Cold Warrior, recaptured the patriotism card briefly for the Democrats. But Vietnam split his party in half. The Dick Daley, Frank Rizzo and George Wallace Democrats supported LBJ and the war, but the Gene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern Democrats denounced the war as unwinnable and immoral.

That gave Richard Nixon – and Spiro Agnew, with his attacks on antiwar radicals – the opening to bring the Daley-Wallace Democrats into their Silent Majority coalition and crush the Democrats’ peace candidate, McGovern, in a 49-state landslide in 1972.

Ronald Reagan, with his love of the military, defense buildup, “evil empire” rhetoric, Reagan Doctrine of aiding anti-communist rebels, and triumphs at the Geneva and Reykjavik summits, held the patriotism card for his party until the Cold War ended.

Since 1968, only two Democrats have been elected president. Both campaigned as non-liberals on national security and defense.

Carter won in 1976 by advertising himself as a Naval Academy graduate and protege of Admiral Rickover. He lost in 1980 after his perceived paralysis in the hostage crisis in Iran. Bill Clinton won in 1992 only because the Cold War had ended.

In 2000, neither candidate nor party could lay any preemptive claim to the patriotism card. But with his war rhetoric, President Bush has diverted the electorate’s attention from a sick economy and reopened the old Vietnam fissure inside the Democratic Party. An extraordinary political achievement, and the president has pulled it off as the stock market has been falling for six straight weeks.

Can the president keep the country focused on war for four more weeks? If he can, he may be able to hold the House, recapture the Senate and clear the path to a Supreme Court in the image of Scalia, Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas. No wonder Tom Daschle is so irritable these days.

The president’s problem is two years off. History shows that when wars end, electorates turn to domestic issues, and there is a clamor for fresh leaders – the most famous example being Churchill’s ouster even as he was meeting with Truman and Stalin at Potsdam.

In the first postwar election of 1946, the Democratic Party, which had held Congress for 14 years, lost both Houses. After the Gulf War, which had vaulted him to 91 percent approval, Bush I carried only 37 percent of the vote in 1992.

A war’s end is often a valedictory for a War Party. Wilson’s Democrats were ousted in 1918, as were Truman’s Democrats in 1946. But a seemingly unwinnable war, such as Korea in 1952 and Vietnam in 1968, can be fatal for a president.

Yet, Karl Rove, a student of history, knows that no wartime president has been ousted as long as the war was going on, and going well. No wonder Republicans tell us this war will last a long time. Why give up the patriotism card – the highest card in the deck?

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