Country First

COUNTRY FIRST…. Over the summer, the McCain campaign, after experimenting with a series of poll-tested mottos, starting emphasizing, “Country First.” It was a relatively subtle test of patriotism — McCain, the argument went, puts country first, while that other guy doesn’t really love his country.

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, Barack Obama took on the motto directly:

“[L]et us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America — they have served the United States of America. So I’ve got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first.”

And almost immediately, the motto seemed to disappear.

Today, McCain tried to revive the line, telling voters at an event in Minnesota, “That’s how we see this election: country first or Obama first.”

I’m certainly not in the habit of giving the McCain campaign advice, but I feel compelled to point out how truly vacuous this is as a slogan. The problem isn’t just that the motto is cheap and misleading — though it is cheap and misleading — it’s that the motto isn’t even persuasive.

Truth be told, McCain pretty much forfeited the whole “country first” line on Aug. 29, in Ohio, when he introduced Sarah Palin as his running mate. Conservative writer David Frum wrote at the National Review that “country first” is a “good slogan,” but added, “If it were your decision, and you were putting your country first, would you put an untested small-town mayor a heartbeat away from the presidency?”

The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson added soon after, “[W]e are reminded, if we did not realize it before, that the three things not to expect from a McCain presidency are caution, prudence and a willingness to always put the nation’s interests above his own.”

But moving beyond this disqualifying factor, “country first or Obama first” doesn’t actually mean anything. If you’re a middle-class family in Ohio, you’re health insurance sucks, your wages have been stagnant for most of the decade, and you can’t afford college tuition for your kids, McCain is effectively telling you, “I’m patriotic, and Obama is arrogant.” It’s the height of stupidity — don’t vote for Obama, not because he’s wrong, and not because his ideas won’t work, but because he has an ego (unlike McCain, who’s running for the nation’s highest office because of his inferiority complex).

McCain was smart to move away from this “country first” inanity last month. It’s foolish to bring it back now.