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'Taking Our Country Back'

The left gets squeamish about one of its old catch-phrases.

2:20 PM, Mar 25, 2011 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Over at the New Republic, Ed Kilgore has an interesting and perfectly reasonable piece about Tim Pawlenty's electoral challenges in the 2012 presidential election. (Kilgore's read tracks somewhat with Jay Cost's, though he's a little less bullish on Pawlenty's prospects.) But one moment in Kilgore's piece stands out. He writes: 

Will a political movement that perceives itself as “taking the country back” from socialists and baby-killers really find its general in a man so unremarkable that he was described in a sympathetic home-state magazine profile as “The Cipher”

Ever since January 2008, folks on the left have been made uncomfortable by the phrase "take our country back." And I'm sympathetic. The phrase is distasteful. Take it back from whom? From a particular set of politicians? From the majority of voters who elected that particular set of politicians? Isn't the idea of America big enough that it never totally "belongs" to any discrete group? 

What's funny is that, best I can tell, "take our country back" emerged in modern political rhetoric with Howard Dean's campaign tartare in 2004. "Take our country back" wasn't just the biggest applause line in Dean's stump speech—it was the entire rationale of his candidacy: That insidious forces (the Bush family, Fox News, Big Oil, Big Media, corporate America, the military industrial complex, the Religious Right, Haliburton, etc.) had stolen "America" from its rightful owners, and now it was time for Dean supporters (wealthy white political donors, young white professionals with graduate degrees, and young white college students) to take it back.

Voters—even Democratic primary voters—didn’t much like this sort of talk. (Remember that Howard Dean had all the money, organization, and momentum in the world and the only contests he carried were Vermont and the District of Columbia.)

But Dean’s rhetoric outlived his candidacy. And in 2008, the candidate who wanted to “take our country back” was Barack Obama.

He began his campaign in 2007 by saying, “Tomorrow, we begin a great journey. A journey to take our country back.” That February he told New Hampshire voters, “You have the power to take this country back.” That April he told students in an Iowa high school that ''Thousands of people across the country feel we are in this moment of time where we might be able to take our country back.'' Heck, that June Obama spoke at the lefty “Take Back America Forum,” telling attendees that “It's going to be because of you that we take our country back.”

I could go on and on and on, but you probably get the idea.

“If you join me, we're going to take our country back.”

“We're gonna take our country back.”

“We want to make sure that everybody who wants to come and join in the party and join in the effort to take this country back.”

Yup. That was all Barack Obama doing his best to unite Purple America by ending the partisan Washington political culture.

Now that he’s president, Obama can’t really talk that way anymore. But it would be nice if the people on his side would remember that, once upon a time, he did.

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