How Democrats Learned to Stop Cowering and Love Nationalist Politics

Each presidential candidate has labeled the other unpatriotic. History shows us why the charges could stick -- and why they just might be productive.

Obama gives his Osawatomie speech. (Reuters)

So far Mitt Romney's overseas trip has told us three things we already knew: Jetlag is difficult for everyone, Romney lacks the natural politician's diplomatic touch, and Israel is a big deal to him. The gaffes are fun, to be sure, but the pre-departure speech he gave to the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference is more instructive for the campaign to come and his foreign-policy approach should he win the White House.

In it, he returned to one of his favorite themes: the idea that Barack Obama somehow doesn't really believe in America the way a true patriot ought to. "I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country," he said pointedly to the VFW audience. "I am not ashamed of American power." Coming not long after an Obama advertisement that juxtaposed Romney's off-key warbling of "America the Beautiful" with headlines accusing the Republican presidential candidate of outsourcing American jobs and using foreign tax shelters, the VFW speech is the latest sign that competing visions of nationalism have become a dominant theme of the presidential race.

While patriotic flag-waving is nothing new in politics, both parties' attempts to run nationalist campaigns this cycle are notable -- and unusual for Democrats, who since September 11 have more frequently been on the receiving end of charges they're not American enough. But the frustrations from and fallout of the 2008 financial crisis appear to have given the Democrats an opening to pick up the nationalist cudgel, and with Romney they are taking full advantage of the opportunity to paint their opponent as an un-American agent of international capital who is not fully committed to the well-being of his countrymen.

This latest and most aggressive example of Democrats' nationalist efforts almost never ran: Obama and his team were uncertain about the "America the Beautiful" advertisement, but a focus group's approval was enough to override the Obama team's concerns. Republicans have labeled such attacks populist "class warfare," but the attacks are deeper and more biting than that. America's political conversation has been heavy recently with discussion of "American exceptionalism."  While Obama is the only president in 82 years to use the term, he has also been subtly promoting a type of exceptional Americans for months now, and Romney's biography sits uneasily within the new nationalist framework he's laid out.

In a December speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, Obama echoed Teddy Roosevelt's "New Nationalism" speech there in 1910, calling for the nation to "reclaim" "American values," such as the belief that this "country succeeds when everyone ... does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules." The Obama team claimed the speech "set the agenda" for the campaign to come and boasted of a direct connection to Roosevelt's speech.

Some labeled it "populist" and "moralistic" -- the White House merely titled them "Remarks by the President on the Economy in Osawatomie, Kansas" -- but the speech was at core an argument on behalf of a particular strain of American nationalism, by suggesting there are true "American values" to "reclaim" and pitting those who subscribe to Obama's (and Roosevelt's) "American values" against those who've combined "breathtaking greed" with "irresponsibility" to plunge "our economy and the world into a crisis."

That is the message of the candidate's most devastating anti-Romney advertisement to date. Just as Obama's 2008 slogan "Change You Can Believe In" subtly leveraged doubts about the Clintons' trustworthiness during the Democratic primaries, they have been building a shadow case against Romney, too. Forget the doubts about airing the advertisement: The "America the Beautiful" spot makes explicit the connection the campaign has been building since Osawatomie: Financial trickery and those who wield it for their own selfish ends are un-American.

The Romney campaign's mishandling of its candidate's Bain experience and tax returns has allowed Democrats to lump Romney into that un-American group. After years of insinuations about the president's heritage, the White House is getting to have its own nationalist fun at Romney's -- and his singing's -- expense.

After years of insinuations about the president's heritage, the White House is getting to have its own nationalist fun at Romney's -- and his singing's -- expense.

That's a change. Historically, Republicans have been the most obvious about and most effective at running nationalist campaigns, dating back to the Cold War. The September 11 attacks revived unease about the outside world -- an unease that has been politically exploited since. For over a decade, it has been one example after another: from the silly -- freedom fries, suggestions that 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry "looks French " -- to the more serious, including persistent doubts about Obama's birthplace and religion, worries about Shariah law and mosques, and, even with some Republican pushback, Michele Bachmann's latest (false) conspiracy theory about the State Department's Huma Abedin. Even independent debunkings -- for example, independent factcheckers labeled the claim that Obama had gone on an "apology tour" "pants on fire" false and asserted it "never happened" -- have not been enough to put these slanders to rest for good.

The pattern was set to continue this cycle. George W. Bush's former political strategist Karl Rove, who was among the first to suggest that Obama had gone on a global apology tour, and current Romney adviser Ed Gillespie recommended that Republicans adopt a "confident, nationalist tone emphasizing American exceptionalism, expressing pride in the United States" to counter Obama's perceived strength in foreign policy and, surely, to capitalize on the tenacious belief that Obama is somehow not fully American.

But Republicans did not need the advice. The evidence includes: Romney's latest speech at the VFW, his slogan "Believe in America," suggestion after suggestion that Obama is turning the United States into Europe, repeated assertions that Obama does not "believe in American exceptionalism," the argument that Obama believes the nation is "in decline," and the recent, walked back, slam from a top Romney surrogate that Obama needs to "learn how to be an American."

Some have decried the smallness of this year's debate while others have hoped a new, more substantive chapter is about to begin. And if the deepest the debate goes is "you're un-American" vs. "no, you're un-American," there will surely be even darker days between now and November. But for too long, the United States has failed to have a conversation about what globalization and an evolving global balance of power and the threats and crises inherent in both mean for the nation and its citizens. This has allowed politicians of both parties to exploit America's reactions to crises.

While ugly, perhaps a nationalist debate could be the American way of starting that deeper national conversation about what it can and should mean to be America and an American in this still young century.