Patriot Games

Next week, the Republican Party will rally around the theme “Putting Country First.”

Pundits have railed against the theme’s implicit suggestion—and other more explicit ones—that Barack Obama is a selfish elitist. But tonight, John Kerry was the first surrogate to address it head-on to a national audience.

“How desperate to tell the son of a single mother who chose community service over money and privilege that he doesn’t put America first,” Kerry said. “No one can question Barack Obama’s patriotism.”

Convention themes set up the message and tone for the rest of the campaign. But the Dems have yet to sync theirs up. Mark Warner sang vague praises of innovation and future vs. past. Joe Biden talked about his working-class upbringing. One of tonight’s speakers actually used the O-word to describe McCain and the Republicans. (They put the “old” in “GOP.”) We’ve heard the refrain “Barack Obama is right, and John McCain is wrong” a few times now. Maybe they’ll pull all these ideas together with Obama’s speech tomorrow night. But if they want to deliver a pre-emptive strike against the RNC theme—an attack in itself—they’ll have to address the patriotism charges head-on.

Michelle Obama, whose past comments have been construed as unpatriotic, cut right to the chase last night: “I love my country.” If he’s going to pre-empt McCain’s message, Barack Obama may have to do the same. In his surprise appearance tonight, he took the first step: “President Bill Clinton reminded us of what it’s like when you’ve got a president who actually puts people first.” Expect more to come.