Eight years ago, when the president’s Barry Allen journey to power began, my Slate colleagues agreed: Republicans questioned the patriotism of those who walked away from George W. Bush. And that was wrong. “Republicans have run out of excuses for blowing the economy, blowing the surplus, and blowing our military resources and moral capital in the wrong country,” wrote our pal Will Saletan. “So they’re going after the patriotism of their opponents.”
This week was Democratic revenge. John Kerry’s speech made it obvious, because he took such radiating joy in balling up the 2004 attack lines and spitting them back at Republicans. “It isn’t fair to say Mitt Romney doesn’t have a position on Afghanistan. He has every position.” “Talk about being for it before you were against it!”—and a room full of Democrats who had seen those words in Progress for America 527 ads cheered. And then: “Mr. Romney—here’s a little advice: Before you debate Barack Obama on foreign policy, you better finish the debate with yourself!” That’s what you get, Republicans!
And that was mild. Again and again, from other speakers, we were told that Mitt Romney’s lack of faith in America, and lack of confidence in killin’ terrorists, were character flaws that no one could heal. The president himself only hinted at it when he said “a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals.” It was a deep groove. To connect it to Romney, you had to believe that the Republican really didn’t believe that people could team up and build bridges. Vengeance for the “we didn’t build it” horsefeathers, I guess.
I’m not sure how much the TV audience saw, but the run-up to the Biden/Obama finish was bracketed by multiple mentions of the Osama bin Laden killing. We heard it from a canned video, and we heard echoes of it from a phalanx of high-ranking veterans who now backed Obama. The Obama campaign warned months ago—May at the latest—that it was going to do this. Still jarring. The last time a Democrat could run, and wanted to run, on foreign policy was in 1996, and Bill Clinton’s ability to do that was still limited by Bob Dole’s war heroism. (“The better man for a better America” remains one of the great pissy campaign slogans.)
This theme worked. I don’t think Obama’s speech worked as well on its own. I’d avoided Twitter during the speech, mostly, so the only feedback I heard was from fellow hacks afterward. General agreement: Biden out-talked Obama. Before he was president, Obama had to work so manfully to prove that he was patriotic, and to tie John McCain to George W. Bush. It was exciting. But Obama’s Democrats spent all week mocking Romney. The president batted clean-up. He even accepted the credit for “a new tower rising over the New York skyline,” because as the president, he can take credit for any nationalist, jingoist feelings that he likes.
Can he do much more of that after tonight? Sometimes. With that final “you did it” refrain, he suggested that government works and fair taxation will do for him what the war on terror did for Bush. Criticize his vision for America and you’re criticizing America itself.
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.