When an incumbent president is running for re-election and the economy is in the doldrums, what's a challenger to do? All the pundits and political analysts agree: Focus like a laser on just one issue: the economy, stupid. Any other strategy really would be stupid, the common wisdom says.
But there are millions of Americans who don't know the common wisdom. They tuned into the campaign for the first time when they tuned in to watch Mitt Romney's acceptance speech. And they probably came away thinking that the sign in Romney's campaign headquarters must say: "It's not the economy, stupid. It's the patriotism."
The pundits ignored the patriotism that drenched Romney's acceptance speech, just as they ignored the chants of "USA! USA!" that punctuated the speech and all those "We believe in America" signs decorating the GOP convention hall. They figured it was just the usual window-dressing required at any Republican convention -- or Democratic convention, for that matter. There will be just as much red-white-and-blue in Charlotte as in Tampa.
But Romney's speechwriters and strategists are not likely to dismiss their patriotic flourishes as mere window-dressing. They've got to mobilize their conservative base while appealing to a crucial sliver of voters in the swing states. Both those target groups consist mainly of white married people and over-65's. They're the only demographics that can give Romney a victory. And they're not the ones most affected by a weak economy.
The people suffering most from unemployment and underemployment -- the young, single women, people of color -- are overwhelmingly for Obama.
So Romney's strategists have to find some other issues to bring their target voters on board. Patriotism is a sure winner. "We believe in America" obviously implies the unspoken sequel: "and the Democrats do not."
Among Romney's target demographics, there's a strong feeling that the Democrats lost their patriotism back in the days of Vietnam war and never regained it. Even the assassination of Osama bin Laden can't erase that feeling, because Obama won't say the sacred word that Marco Rubio fairly shouted as he introduced the GOP candidate: Romney "understands what makes America exceptional."
Romney did spend plenty of time in his speech harping on the weak economy. But when he asked, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?", if likely voters answered honestly, most would say "yes," or at least "no worse off." Most polls find a majority of Americans giving those answers, and it's more often true among Romney than Obama supporters.
But Romney's target voters are nervous about their future because they see the nation's economy as a whole in bad shape. So "Are you better off?" is a coded way of asking, "How do you think America is doing? Is the economy safe? Is America keeping you safe?" Romney is raising the issue of national pride, the core of patriotism. And he's probing the tenderest of political spots among his target voters, their deeply buried sense of national insecurity.
He's also asking, "Do you think your family is safe?" The most noted line of his speech was his scoffing remark that "President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans," followed by the punch line: "My promise is to help you and your family." How can Democrats be patriotic when they care so much about the whole world?, Romney was asking. True patriots worry about taking care of business at home.
With that the GOP leader tied together the three key elements of his patriotic narrative: American exceptionalism, prosperity through unbridled capitalism, and the safety of the traditional nuclear family. That's the holy trinity of "the America that we all know," as Romney put it -- though he should have said, more accurately, the America that we Republicans imagine once existed and still long to believe in, the America we think any true patriot must believe in, too.
For many of Romney's target voters, Obama symbolizes profound doubt whether the familiar America of their imagination still exists or can ever exist again. Romney's strategists surely understand the anxiety those voters feel about losing the America they believe in. Just as surely, they want to raise that anxiety.
Obama and his strategists know all this well enough. So we are likely to hear the president and other Democrats oozing a patriotism that will make some of their own base a bit queasy. That part of the Dem base has been more or less skeptical about unbridled patriotism ever since it carried us into the horror of Vietnam.
But there's an election to be won. It's a simple rule of battle strategy: When your opponent rolls out a big gun, if you've got the same gun in your arsenal, you fire back with it every chance you get.
The two candidates' visions of patriotism are hardly the same, though. In Obama's rhetoric, the holy trinity is American leadership-in-partnership, prosperity through cooperation, and the safety of families of every kind, both traditional and not.
The real story of Election '12 may turn out to be not just a referendum on the economy nor a choice between two ideas about government's role, but also -- perhaps most importantly -- a choice between two visions of what it means to be a patriotic American.
Ira Chernus blogs at MythicAmerica.us.