Richard Burr isn't where he wants to be headed into his final election. His approval numbers are middling—30 percent in June—and his party is a shambles, anchored by the dead weight of drowning presidential candidate Donald Trump. North Carolina's senior U.S. senator now finds himself locked in a pitched battle with former state representative Deborah Ross, a whip-smart challenger who has proven a prodigious fundraiser. With fewer than a hundred days to go, Burr faces a difficult task in this age of balkanized politics: convincing lukewarm Hillary Clinton backers to pull the lever for him.
To do that, Burr is playing a card straight out of the GOP's 1990s deck. This weekend, Burr's campaign sent supporters an email hocking $7 American flag pins—and calling into question Ross's love of country. "These flag pins," wrote digital media coordinator Elizabeth Minton, "represent our respect for the flag and the sacrifice of those who died to protect it. I know Deborah Ross wouldn't be seen wearing one of these. She called it a 'tremendous victory' for people to burn flags, but she wouldn't fight for a veteran's right to fly one."
Ah, patriotism, the last refuge of the scoundrel—an axiom proven time and time again during the George W. Bush administration. (Remember freedom fries?)
Here's the back story: from 1994–2002, Ross was the executive director of the state ACLU. The ACLU opposed Republican efforts to enact a constitutional prohibition on flag burning, which the Supreme Court declared in 1989 to be protected speech, even though many Americans find it distasteful.
That much was known—and it was pretty much a given that Burr would use Ross's ACLU years to tar her as an unpatriotic radical who loves flag burners and atheists and sex offenders and other assorted miscreants. (Ross also raised questions about* North Carolina's sex offender registry—on the perfectly reasonable ground that many sex crimes take place within families, so outing the perp could mean outing the victim—and allowing public schools to display the Ten Commandments.) But this part is new. Last week, the Burr campaign—with an assist from the right-wing Washington Free Beacon—hit Ross for declining to help a Caldwell County veteran who was asked to take down an American flag flying on a pole in his lawn because it ran afoul of his neighborhood's covenants.
The vet's letter probably never made it to the ACLU executive director's desk; in any event, the neighborhood agreed to change its rules. But that didn't stop the Burr camp from turning the outrage up to eleven.
"This is another example of Deborah Ross' radical tenure as the chief lobbyist for the ACLU," spokesman Jesse Hunt said in a statement to The Charlotte Observer. "Ross will have to explain to the roughly 775,000 veterans in North Carolina ... and other patriots why she would allow someone to destroy our country's flag, but won't stand up for the someone who wants to fly it."
Fact check: Ross didn't "allow" anyone to burn a flag. The Supreme Court did that. More important: the First Amendment wasn't meant to protect viewpoints that everyone agrees with. It was meant to protect the radicals, the unsavory, those with dangerous opinions—including flag-burners.
The right to unpopular speech is a fundamental pillar of America's greatness, and for the republic to survive, it needs to be defended vigorously. Like it or not, it's also one of those rights North Carolina's 775,000 veterans fought to protect. If Burr doesn't understand that—or, worse, if he's wrapping himself in the flag to cater to authoritarian impulses—that's his problem, not Ross's.
*Clarification: an earlier version of this story stated that Ross opposed the sex-offender registry. Rather, according to the registry legislation’s author, she worked with lawmakers to improve the bill’s privacy protections.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Last Refuge of Scoundrels."