But think about it. Political campaigns are always about symbolism -- "malaise" vs. "morning in America." Both sides use symbols. Sure, as the piece points out, it was the Pledge of Allegiance in 1988, but four years later, it was President George H.W. Bush's alleged bewilderment at a grocery scanner (later exposed as an egregious falsehood) or looking at his watch during a debate that became the operative and destructive symbols of a losing campaign.
What exercises Democrats (and their friends in the press) isn't the use of symbols, per se -- it's that they get tripped up on the symbols of patriotism like the Pledge of Allegiance, flag lapel pins, and the like. From that, they charge that Republicans are "questioning their patriotism." That's not true, of course. Rather, Republicans are questioning the way their expressions of patriotism -- which, as noted here, often suggest a deep-rooted distaste for the notion of American exceptionalism -- reflect their values. In turn, Democrats hate these issues being drawn to public attention because, in fact, some of their values are in conflict with those of the majority of Americans, who do believe their country is exceptional.
For the elites, such issues are somehow "distractions" -- what voters should really be caring about is how they can get the government to do more for them or give more to them. What they don't get is that for many Americans, these issues aren't "distractions" at all . . . they're revealing windows into the values and priorities of the people who are seeking to lead them.
In passing, Toner likewise refers to the "swift boating" of John Kerry. Please. If anyone has tried to manipulate patriotic symbols cynically and for his own advantage (and dishonestly, at that!) more than John "Reporting For Duty" Kerry, I'd like to know whom. His problem wasn't his former swift boat comrades in arms -- it's that his own former words and attitudes (remember Ghengis "Jengish" Khan?) were out of synch with the image he was trying to portray . . . and were deeply offensive to many.
"Using symbols as bludgeons" is simply an excuse Democrats make for why they lose. They lose when they're wrong on the issues. And they lose when Republicans can demonstrate that their undoubted love of country (yes, their "patriotism") takes forms that look pretty strange to the normal American voter.
Maybe the answer for the Dems is to rearrange their values and priorities -- rather than blaming Republicans for supposed "trickery" and voters for their stupidity in falling for the GOP's alleged gambit.