Is patriotism a real campaign issue?

Independence Day is usually the time Americans show off their good-natured patriotism. But this election year, the political fireworks have detonated around the question of whose service and patriotism is greater, John McCain’s or Barack Obama’s.

Some Obama supporters, most recently retired Gen. Wesley Clark, have dismissed McCain’s Vietnam War record as a qualification to be president.

McCain spent five years in North Vietnam as a prisoner of war.

Meantime, Barack Obama visited Independence, Mo., on June 30, where he discussed his patriotism.

"I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign," Obama said, before adding, "I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine."

Obama was referring to a series of rumors and charges about his citizenship, his religion and his willingness to salute the flag.

Do the Democrats have a "patriotism problem"? Should a presidential candidate’s patriotic credentials even be an issue in America today? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.



Democrats too often forget the power of symbolism. Take Barack Obama and the flag pin. Like many Americans, Obama wore a lapel pin after Sept. 11, and then he stopped wearing it after the Iraq war got underway. Obama explained last fall how the "became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security. I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testament to my patriotism."

Note Obama’s verbiage: "What I believe will make the country great." As if the country isn’t great already? And Obama wonders why patriotism is an issue Yet when Obama made his impassioned patriotic defense in Harry Truman’s backyard the other day, he spoke movingly about the principles of liberty and equality that bind all Americans together, regardless of race, color, creed or political party.

It was a good speech, if a little windy in places. But it’s worth wondering whether Obama would ever have given the speech under other circumstances. The bottom line: If Obama has a patriotism problem, it’s one of his own making. Sometimes it’s better to let the pin do the talking.



Republicans too often focus primarily on the symbols — instead of the substance — of patriotism. That’s especially true this election year, when the war and the economy are losing issues for the GOP: John McCain has a much better chance of taking the White House if voters spend their energies worrying about the status of Barack Obama’s flag pins.

Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg recently defined a patriot as someone who embraces America’s "inherent goodness." That’s an appealing, but limited, definition. Goldberg’s kind of patriotism makes it easy to ignore when America slides into error, and lets us be comforted by our own good intentions when we resort to torture, the deprivation of civil liberties or mistaken wars. Instead, let’s consider that a real patriot embraces the inherent goodness of America’s founding ideals — liberty and equality — and is willing to call his country to account when it falls short. Dissent really can be the highest form of patriotism.

The truth is that Barack Obama has a "patriotism problem" because Republicans decided he did. But the truth is also that Obama and McCain are both patriots, men who have given their adult lives to serving their communities and country. Patriotism isn’t partisan; we should stop pretending like it is.

Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis blog daily at and