Saturday, August 25, 2012

All in: Romney plays the birther card

IT STARTED OUT mundanely enough. Mitt Romney was speaking Friday at a campaign rally in Michigan, his former home state, where all the trees are the right height. The presumptive Republican nominee for president got into what seemed to be a rambling disquisition on the specifics of the origins of certain lives.

“I love being home in this place where Ann and I were raised, where both of us were born. Ann was born in Henry Ford Hospital. I was born in Harper Hospital,” Romney said in Commerce, less than 40 miles from the Detroit locations he referenced.

Then: “No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.” Cue the partisan applause and hoo-ah shouts.

And just that fast, the sour, angry dynamic of the 2012 presidential campaign took a new turn. For the first time in 14 months of campaigning, Mitt Romney, in a statement both socially insensitive and politically incompetent, cast his lot with the purveyors of this political season’s most divisive meme.

Romney, a devout Mormon and therefore averse to gambling, just went all in, playing the birther card. Whether it was evidence of a conservative one-percenter’s passive-aggressive malice or a campaigner’s Freudian brain-fart doesn’t really matter. With a comment just calculated enough to galvanize the angriest people in the conservative base, Mitt Romney abandoned any pretense of appealing to the broad national electorate.

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Team Obama pounced at once. “Throughout this campaign, Gov. Romney has embraced the most strident voices in his party instead of standing up to them,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in an email to the media. “Romney's decision to directly enlist himself in the birther movement should give pause to any rational voter across America.”

“This is the kind of gutterball politics that I think will and should turn the American people off,” said Jen Psaki, Obama deputy press secretary, on NBC.

Conservatives were quick to defend Romney’s aside. “Right on, right on, right on,” said talk-radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh, who said he thought Romney was “test-driving” the birther crack for use at other campaign events to come.

On his radio show, Fox News host Sean Hannity said the joke showed Romney’s “got a good sense of humor.”

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In an interview with CBS News’ Scott Pelley, Romney defended the comments. ““Well, we’re in Michigan, and Ann I and I were both born in Detroit and of course a little humor always goes a long way,” he said. “So it was great to be home, to be in a place where Ann and I had grown up, and the crowd loved it and got a good laugh.”

And conservative mouthpieces such as the RedState blog and commentator Michelle Malkin were quick to take note of how a coffee mug with an image of the president’s birth certificate is available at the Obama campaign Web site.

Which, while true enough, begs the question of why Romney would raise an issue that isn’t an issue for anyone who’s seen the document that attests to the birth of Barack Hussein Obama II at Kapiolani Maternity & Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Aug. 4, 1961 at 7:24 p.m.

Or why, when Romney should be working to expand his support among American voters generally, he’s decided to double down on what amounts to a primary-season strategy of wooing the base — and kicking the rest of the electorate to the curb.

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OR WHY Romney would say something that obliquely expressed what he didn’t believe, even in the context of a joke. “I've said throughout the campaign and before that there's no question about where [Obama] was born; he was born in the U.S.,” he told Pelley. “I've said that probably 30 times by now, and 31 certainly won't hurt.”

So why even do it? The attempts of the Romney campaign and his supporters to cast his joke as a slip of the lip, just an unforced error, have to confront the deliberate, painstakingly precise construction of the joke itself. There’s the set-up:  first, telling everyone where he and his wife were born; then following that with the punchline: “No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate.”

From all indications, it’s a matter of Romney obsequious, endearing himself to his supporters on the extremist right, backers like publicity enthusiast Donald Trump and Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who’s lately made the veracity of the presidential birth certificate a personal mission.

In the bigger scheme of things, Romney’s adventures in standup comedy won’t amount to much — at least no more than previous rhetorical embarrassments he’s committed in recent months. Viewed through that wider lens, the public may not even care. But if nothing else, his comments in Commerce reflect a tactical ineptitude on the part of Team Romney.

They're another multi-day distraction from the central issues of the campaign. When Romney should be gravitating toward a general-election mindset, he’s earnestly, slavishly playing to the Republican base that’s going to vote for him anyway. Instead of focusing on his presumed strong suit as a man of economics, he’s reawakened the nation’s attention to his willingness to say anything — anything — to achieve the presidency.

Image credits: Romney: CBS News. Obama birth certificate detail: Public record.

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