Patriot Games: Short Memos to the Would-be Presidents

Who is a true patriot? Defining patriotism isn't just a tussle over words. No concept more completely challenges us to describe what we believe America means. To frame patriotism is to frame a story of an ideal America -- and its ideal leaders. In that spirit, here's some advice to the three presidential contenders.

TO: Senator Obama

You are the new hope for millions of Americans. But frankly, you are in danger of becoming John Kerry. The controversies about your patriotism and that of your wife and pastor are but a taste of what would come your way in a general election. Swift boats lie in wait. And you have not done remotely enough to identify, preempt and neutralize them.

Your March 18 speech, in which you deftly fused your identity and family with America's identity and family, was inspiring and perhaps the best speech on race in a generation. But it was still, at bottom, a defensive play, a reaction to your pastor's incendiary remarks. We believe you must go on offense now. You must articulate -- for yourself, your party and your country -- an affirmative case for why patriotism is progressive, and why progressives must embrace patriotism.

This is why: while this most recent controversy seems to be about race, it reinforces an equally potent political narrative that says, "Deep down, Democrats and liberals don't really love America." This storyline has been peddled by the conservative movement since at least Vietnam. To break it, you must do more than explain the divisions of race. You must offer a new narrative of nationhood.

Face the right first, and tell the GOP that you -- and all Democrats -- will no longer accept their jingoistic claim to the flag; that their narrow and negative conception of freedom -- as a permission slip for unchecked selfishness -- is fundamentally un-American; and that true patriotism -- the idea of "country above self" -- leads to a set of moral values like mutual obligation, shared sacrifice and a fair shot, values that are inherently progressive.

But then face left, and tell liberals that they must get over their decades-old ambivalence about embracing patriotism. Too many on the left think that proclaiming love of country implies support of George Bush or the war in Iraq. So they keep mute -- and allow the right to claim patriotism as its own. Too many other liberals think voicing criticism is the full measure of one's patriotic duty. Dissent is vital, but not sufficient. A true progressive patriot can say in heartfelt terms what is great and special about America and is not content merely to point out or explain its flaws.

This, more than speaking out on race, is your mission at this moment. Keep your eye on this prize.

TO: Senator Clinton

Congratulations. You live. You have landed on campaign narrative as the fighter, the candidate who won't quit and who'll always fight for those who won't quit either. But already you are wasting this new image. Already you are reverting to the kind of national Democratic candidate who has always failed on the big stage: a candidate who believes that leadership is the mere agglomeration of the wants of many small groups. You are becoming again the candidate of microtrends.

We applaud your command of policy detail, and we recognize that this is a tactically useful way to underscore your experience. But we submit to you that most voters cannot and will not reverse engineer from your detailed policy positions what your core values and principles are. And further, we believe that in a general election, it won't be enough that voters prefer your policies to those of John McCain. That's because too many voters will say he has a clearer moral framework than you do -- and even if they don't agree with his, they may prefer his something to your perceived nothing.

We are not asking you now to play a word game. This is not about tactics, or seasoning your speeches with a "moral" phrase here or there. Your challenge -- indeed, your opportunity, to wrest the mantle of principled leadership from Senator Obama -- is to express your deepest personal values within a framework of public morality and patriotism.

For example: what deep strategic gain is there in arguing with Obama about your health care proposals? You are the candidate with a mandate in your plan, and he is not. Fine. You get wonk points for that. But you would get much more if you were seen as the candidate with a principles framework for your plan. Your plan requires individuals to purchase insurance because of the simple idea that everyone should contribute to the pool, the healthy and sick, young and old. That moral principle is called mutual obligation. It is called shared sacrifice.

Talk about health care (and every issue) in such terms. And then wrap the discussion in two protective layers: one, a personal layer about how you came by these values honestly as the daughter of Midwest parents who believed in hard work but also believed that rugged individualism never got a barn built; and then second, a more mythic and national layer that describes these values not as Hillary's values but as American values -- as the living core of true patriotism.

You get to define patriotism anew, as emanating from the values of progress and a fair shot that made this country great. And that's a lot more compelling than a raft of microproposals.

TO: Senator McCain

We know that your first priorities, now that you are the nominee, are to act presidential while the Democrats bicker and to open up the GOP ATM with GWB's PIN. But we would caution you about the dangers of coasting.

It is tempting for you to assume that as the only candidate who served in the military, as the only one who is son and grandson of admirals, as the only one who survived an epic POW experience, and as the one who had the guts to propose a surge and to watch it work -- that with all this you get to own the title of patriot-in-chief in 2008.

And at first blush, you do benefit from the framing that your party has created in which "patriotism = love of the military," or "patriotism = loyalty to your president." But we've read your books. We know that your beliefs on patriotism, forged in the Hanoi Hilton, are deeper and subtler than that. You have written powerfully that freedom alone is not what makes the life worth living; what we do with freedom is what matters, and how we summon a sense of common cause to make the doing great.

So here's the opportunity for you. You alone, and you uniquely, can be the candidate who tells Americans that patriotism isn't just about serving in the military or supporting the troops; that true patriotism is not about "my way or the highway," or labeling dissent as un-American. You uniquely can tell us that true patriots can be found not only in the armed forces but in our public school classrooms; in the everyday work of caring for someone other than yourself.

In short, you can be Nixon going to China. Only Nixon, the die-hard anti-Communist, had the standing to make peace with Mao. And only you can command the country to grow beyond the tinhorn phony patriotism of this administration. You can be the man with unimpeachable uniformed credentials who broadens our conception of patriotism beyond militarism or jingoism, beyond lapel pins and flag-waving. You can appeal to independents not only with the charm of the rebellious maverick -- because in the end, that's still all about you -- but rather with a story that flatters us all: a story that says we all can be patriots.

This will help you win the election. More important, it will be true.

Eric Liu, a former speechwriter and policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, and Nick Hanauer, technology and civic entrepreneur, are authors of "The True Patriot." You can reach them -- and read their book -- at www.truepat.org.