If conservatives want to succeed in taking our government back, we need to drop the popular but misguided slogan about "taking our country back."
Yes, an arrogantly incompetent president has combined with a corrupt collection of nanny-state, leftist hacks to grab (temporary) control of the Washington levers of power, but that doesn't mean that America itself has been seized or stolen. Clear-thinking conservatives can never lose sight of the fact that the nation, with its free market economy and incomparably dynamic private sector, is always bigger and better and, ultimately, more powerful than the government.
Moreover, the notion that we've lost the country itself - that America is "done," as one of my talk show colleagues recently proclaimed on air- only undermines the prospects for political success. Regaining control of Washington, D.C., after all, remains a less daunting undertaking—and a vastly more achievable goal—than "taking back" an entire nation that's somehow been lost.
And if we actually did lose America, when exactly did that happen? Even the most ardent Tea Party supporters don't really believe that the people have given up their irreducible goodness and decency; that our churches and small businesses, cops and soldiers, neighbors and families have been universally corrupted by Barack Obama and his welfare state. The current surge in Constitutionalist ideology and patriotic fervor, measured by promising polls regarding the upcoming elections, indicates that we don't need to "take our country back" because the country and its ideals never really got taken away. What happened in the election of 2008 brought purely political change, not some deeper spiritual or cultural transformation that rendered the United States unrecognizable. Obama and his minions initially assumed that their electoral victory signified precisely this sort of fundamental alteration in our national consciousness but the vigorous push-back to all aspects of their agenda, not to mention the president's plummeting poll numbers, proved to the world that they were wrong.
This doesn't mean that the populace counts as durably, overwhelmingly conservative. Neither right-wingers nor left-wingers can credibly claim to own the nation when swing voters, often confused and bored by ideological struggle of every sort, provide the margin of victory in every election. These flighty and skittish "independents" went for Obama in a big way in 2008 and now have turned against him decisively; Republicans will continue to prosper only so long as they draw support from those who claim neither conservative nor liberal outlook and announce their own tepid unpredictability with the title "moderate."
Talking about "taking our country back," conjuring images of an eternal battle between us-and-them, can only alienate that crucial element of the populace with few ideological attachments and chronic disinclination to firm allegiances. The moderates who decide most political battles feel uncomfortable with harsh rhetoric from either right or left, treating rivals as some alien other. After all, Howlin' Howie Dean ran his ultra-liberal presidential campaign of 2004 using precisely the slogan favored by today's conservatives, and promising to "take our country back"—in his case, from the dreaded Bush regime. Though once hailed as the Democratic frontrunner, Dean's campaign developed an apocalyptic and paranoid edge that finally repelled even liberal voters in Democratic primaries. Republicans should avoid replicating that aura of off-putting self-righteousness.
There's also an unmistakable, uncomfortable whiff of racial animus in demanding to regain lost control of "our country" during the term of America's first non-white president. Naturally, left-wingers will seize on any excuse to charge their conservative adversaries with hatred of black people, and they have logically asked, "from whom, exactly, do conservatives mean to take their country back?” From liberals, or from people of color?"
Like the NAACP's ludicrous attack on the Tea Party as the second coming of the Klan, these charges may seem opportunistic and implausible, but why risk even the vague appearance of race-baiting when it's entirely unnecessary?
Students of Reconstruction history may even recall that when the occupying Union Army abandoned the South after 1876, and white aristocrats regained power from the former slaves and Northern sympathizers who had temporarily taken-over former Confederate states, local sympathizers designated the Klan-backed process as "The Restoration."
At this painful passage in our national history, big majorities dislike and distrust the direction of the current government, but that doesn't mean they long for a "restoration." They want a change in course, a fresh start and an end to the bitter-end political gang wars that have characterized our polarized capital for more than two decades, but they don't believe that the nation has succumbed to some alien occupation.
With only three and a half months to go before a fateful election, President Obama still can't stop talking about the failure of Bush and most Republicans can only talk about the (admittedly more relevant) failures of Obama. Meanwhile, the public might appreciate an alternative narrative that emphasized future triumphs rather than past disasters. Conservatives will succeed most substantially if they pledge to take America forward, not back.
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