Birthers: The lunatic issue that just won’t go away

Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

In a political environment where nutcase theories take root and won’t go away, the “birther” movement has become an albatross for the Republican Party.

Based on the debunked belief that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, the birther movement now forces GOP candidates and leaders to take sides and walk a tightrope because the sudden — and some think inexplicable — popularity of flamboyant real estate mogul Donald Trump and his embrace of the birthers has forced them into taking a position.

Like a boil that needs lancing, the birther issue won’t go away.  It has forced several prominent Republicans to distanced themselves, some with emphasis, some not, from the false and ridiculous claim that Obama was born in a foreign country.

But Americans are nothing is not gullible and a new poll showing that two-thirds of adult Republicans either embrace the claim or are open to it, these same GOP leaders face the challenge of distancing themselves from an issue they know is idiotic but still one that plays well with their base.

“It’s a real challenge for the Republican Party and virtually every Republican candidate for president,” Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, tells The Associated Press. Still, political professionals warn that embracing the birthers means certain alienation of the all-important independent voters will will see Republicans as extreme or irrelevant.

While many Americans consider claims of Obama’s foreign birth preposterous and  unworthy of serious debate, the “birther” issue threatens to overshadow the early the political debate within the GOP and will remain so as long as Trump stirs the pot.

For Republicans its a case of picking political expedience over the truth. As long as 45 percent of adult Republicans believe the lunacy that Obama is foreign born and 22 percent say they don’t know, Republicans know they can’t denounce the idea as a falsehood even though they know it is.

A year ago, the same polling firm  a year ago found most GOP adults felt Obama was U.S.-born while 32 percent said they believed he was foreign-born.

The latest poll also shows half of all independents believe Obama was born in the United States. The other are evenly split between those saying he is foreign-born, and those saying they don’t know.

Reports Charles Babington of The Associated Press:

Ten percent of Democrats said Obama was born overseas, and 9 percent were unsure.

Obama’s birth certificate indicates he was born in Hawaii in 1961. Newspaper birth announcements at the time reported the birth, and news organizations’ investigations have rebutted the birthers’ claims. The Constitution says a president must be a “natural born citizen.”

Trump’s leap to the top tier of potential GOP presidential contenders in recent polls has frustrated party leaders who’d like the birthplace issue to go away.

And while House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor claim they are satisfied that Obama was born in Hawaii, they have declined to criticize those who state otherwise, and Boehner has said it’s not his job to tell Americans what to think.

Trump, meanwhile, keeps fueling the fire. Even though many people doubt he will run for president, he has forced other Republicans to take stands.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania have been the most direct in rejecting the birthers’ claims. “I believe the president was born in the United States,” Romney told CNBC.

Santorum has no doubt that Obama was born in Hawaii, and he “believes this debate distracts us from the real issues,” said his spokeswoman, Virginia Davis.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour accepts the president’s word about his birthplace, his staff said.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty told an Iowa audience, “I’m not one to question the authenticity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate.” He added a little jab: “When you look at his policies, I do question what planet he’s from.”

When ABC’s George Stephanopoulos showed a copy of Obama’s birth certificate to Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who was ambivalent at first, she said: “Well, then, that should settle it. … I take the president at his word.”

Former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin gave mixed signals in a recent Fox News appearance. She praised Trump for “paying for researchers” to dig into claims of Obama’s foreign birth. But she added, “I think that he was born in Hawaii because there was a birth announcement put in the newspaper.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has dismissed claims that Obama is foreign-born, calling them a distraction. But on a February radio show, Huckabee referred to Obama “having grown up in Kenya,” the birthplace of the president’s father.

Obama grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. A spokesman said Huckabee’s statement was simply a mistake.

Aides to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said voters have not asked him about the birthplace question and he has not discussed it.

The issue has spread to several states where Republican-controlled legislatures have introduced or passed bills requiring presidential candidates, and sometimes others, to prove their citizenship. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, recently vetoed such a bill, calling it “a bridge too far.”

Democrats think the birthplace issue might fire up liberals, especially minorities, who in many cases have been dispirited by Obama’s frequent compromises with conservatives to pass legislation. Blacks who embraced Obama’s barrier-breaking election now see some Republicans claiming he has no constitutional right to be president.

The New York Times-CBS poll was worded in a way that might have subtly encouraged respondents to say Obama is foreign born. “Some people say Barack Obama was NOT born in the United States,” the poll’s callers said, but they did not offer counter arguments.

Moreover, some pollsters think respondents will seize a chance to call Obama a Muslim or non-citizen to convey something else: a dislike for him or his policies.

“Some people who strongly oppose a person or proposition will take virtually any opportunity to express that antipathy,” writes Gary Langer, who polls for ABC News.

Garin, the Democratic pollster, doesn’t buy it in this case. The birthers’ claims are so prevalent, especially on conservative TV and radio shows, he said, that poll respondents are likely to say what they truly believe about a much-discussed topic.

“There are high- profile people, including Donald Trump and many others in the conservative media, who advocate and validate this point of view each and every day,” Garin said. The big question about the birthplace issue, he said, “is the extent to which it drives a wedge within the Republican Party” and turns off independents in November 2012.

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