This week, the media broke news that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said, at an event attended by prospective Republican presidential candidate Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, that he does not believe President Barack Obama "loves America." This isn't news. Barack Obama doesn't love free enterprise, believes founding philosophy was fatally flawed and sees the American people as rubes with antiquated religious and racist tendencies. Sure, we can all agree that Obama likely loves America's scenery; perhaps he loves America, but doesn't like her very much. But that's not what Giuliani was talking about, and everyone knows it.
But in any case, Giuliani wasn't the media's true target. The true target was Walker.
Using Giuliani's comments as a springboard, media members went hunting for a faux pas from Walker. They asked him whether he thinks Obama loves America; Walker responded, quite rightly, "You should ask the president what he thinks about America. I've never asked him so I don't know." They asked him whether he believed Obama was a Christian; Walker answered, "I don't know. ... You've asked me to make statements about people that I haven't had a conversation with about that."
For the media, this represented a "gotcha" moment. Anyone who doubts President Obama's love of country must be pilloried as cruel and inhumane. Anyone who doubts the religious sincerity of a man who invoked Christianity to support lies about his support for traditional marriage, a man who recently compared Christian history with the acts of ISIS, must be publicly scourged.
Naturally, many Republicans have eagerly jumped on the bandwagon. George F. Will said that all Republicans should say that Obama is a patriot (a strategy that worked brilliantly for John McCain in 2008). Matt Lewis of The Daily Beast wrote that no candidate should question anyone's patriotism or stated faith. The premise seems to be that failing to demonstrate such goodwill touches off media conflagrations that damage conservatives overall.
This misses the point.
Democrats have for years been questioning the decency of Republicans as human beings. During the Obamacare rollout, President Obama accused Republicans of wanting to deprive people of healthcare; he openly accused President George W. Bush of being "unpatriotic" for raising the national debt. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that Republicans are "indifferent" to hungry and poor children. Anyone who opposes any aspect of President Obama's agenda has been deemed a racist.
The point here is not the media's double standard, which is egregious but unchangeable. The point is that this perception of Republicans has pervaded the public arena. Republicans' fundamental burden is not explaining to the American people that Democrats are great people, but wrong on policy. Their great burden is overcoming the generalized perception that they are money-grubbing Snidely Whiplashes bent on strapping widows and orphans to the train tracks.
You cannot overcome that perception by ardently pleading that the very folks who call you racist, sexist, homophobic bigots are well-intentioned but incompetent. If someone calls you a racist, and you respond by stating that they are a reasonable human being with policy differences, you grant their premise: A reasonable person has called you a racist, which means it is reasonable to call you racist. You lose.
And Republicans have been losing, at least in large part, because they grant the fundamental premise of the left: Democrats are well-meaning, even when they are wrong, and Republicans have evil intentions, even when they are right. That is a recipe for disaster in a country where intentions matter more than actions.