Given the nature of their incendiary charges against Bush, Democrats are almost forced into questioning his patriotism. If Bush really lied the country into a war of choice to boost his own political fortunes, he is a treasonous scoundrel. If the Bush administration creates terror alerts to provide itself political cover, as Dean thinks, it is an unpatriotic monstrosity. If Bush is a "fascist" -- as Dean and prominent environmental activist Robert Kennedy Jr. suggested last week -- he is un-American.
Republican elected officials and the Bush White House don't similarly impugn the Democrats' patriotism. Even if they were so inclined, they wouldn't dare, because the media would flay them alive for it. Designated Democratic martyr Max Cleland -- who was given a prime-time speaking slot last week because he supposedly lost his Georgia Senate seat on charges that he is unpatriotic -- would have been better off if Republicans had actually questioned his patriotism instead of his Senate votes. Cleland could have easily beaten back that over-the-top charge. His record, on the other hand, was harder to defend.
Indeed, it makes sense for Democrats to pretend that the debate is all about whether they are patriotic. To that challenge they can simply answer, "Yes, we are -- next question." This was the flag-waving, reporting-for-duty approach of Sen. Kerry last week. But that's not the issue. It is whether the Democrats have a tough and serious national-security policy, a much more difficult question for them to answer.
If Democrats want to question Republicans' patriotism, that's their business. They just shouldn't pretend that they are the victims of the kind of assault they themselves are launching.