WASHINGTON -- If the 2008 election is to be a debate about the true meaning of patriotism, then bring it on.
Ever since Barack Obama took off his flag pin, Democrats and liberals have had a queasy feeling that talk of patriotism would be a covert way to raise the matter of Obama's race; to cast him as some sort of alien figure ("You know what his middle name is?"); and to paint him as an effete intellectual out of touch with true American values.
I have no doubt that all these things will happen. Moreover, John McCain's sacrifice for his country will be a central theme of the Republican campaign. And why not? Yes, many Republicans refused to honor John Kerry's service during the campaign four years ago. But McCain wasn't part of that, and his service deserves the praise it gets.
Yet Obama simply cannot cede the terrain of patriotism to McCain, and progressives should not assume that patriotism is somehow a bad thing, akin to jingoism or nationalism. The reaction of too many progressives to patriotism is "automatic, allergic recoil," say two young Seattle writers, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, in their important book The True Patriot. Instead of recoil, they offer rigorous standards for what patriotism should be. "True patriots," they write, "believe that freedom from responsibility is selfishness, freedom from sacrifice is cowardice, freedom from tolerance is prejudice, freedom from stewardship is exploitation, and freedom from compassion is cruelty."
Their new progressive patriotism bears some resemblance to the old progressive patriotism of Theodore Roosevelt. "We cannot meet the future," Roosevelt said in a 1916 Memorial Day speech, "either by mere gross materialism or by mere silly sentimentalism; above all, we cannot meet it if we attempt to balance gross materialism in action by silly sentimentalism in words."
As the Seattle writers and Roosevelt suggest, anyone who enters into a serious discussion of patriotism is required to offer more than bromides about love of flag and of country. Patriotism has to involve definitions, commitments and actions.
Obama already has the template for moving the debate in this direction. Last December, he gave one of his best, and least noticed, speeches: a call to national service. The policies he proposed are important, including a doubling of the Peace Corps and an expansion of the AmeriCorps program from 75,000 to 250,000 slots. (And by the way, President Bush deserves credit for saving AmeriCorps from the hostility of some in his own party.) Obama would link his $4,000 tuition tax credit to a service requirement.
He also suggests ideas that conservatives should embrace, including a Social Investment Fund Network and a Social Entrepreneur Agency that would encourage the innovations of the private, not-for-profit sector. But Obama's speech was about more than programs. It was suffused with the rhetoric of a reformer's patriotism. "I have no doubt that, in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it," he said. "Loving your country shouldn't just mean watching fireworks on the 4th of July; loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it."
Obama's is just one of several approaches to patriotism and service.
Senator Jim Webb's new GI Bill of Rights is an essential step toward honoring those who have sacrificed in Iraq, and Sen. Chris Dodd has proposed important interim steps toward expanding AmeriCorps by bringing its rewards to those who perform service more closely in line with current college costs.
Dodd says he always explains his decision to join President Kennedy's Peace Corps by saying, "The president asked me." He wins nods from youthful audiences when he says, "Let me tell you what it was like to be young, to be an American, and to be asked."
Dodd was campaigning for Obama in South Dakota last Friday when he spoke with me, and he seems to have gotten this message to his candidate. Pinch-hitting for Ted Kennedy as the commencement speaker at Wesleyan University on Sunday, Obama explicitly renewed JFK's call and promised that "service to a greater good" would be "a cause of my presidency."
A competition between Obama and McCain over who can issue the most compelling summons to service would serve the country far better than an empty rhetorical skirmish over which of these candidates is the true patriot.
And, yes, it's a good thing that Obama has been seen wearing the flag pin again.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.