Top Republican leaders have begun a belated effort to squash the birther theory that threatens to define their party as a bunch of lunatics, at least among those many Americans who don’t share the obsessions of the GOP base.
But I have no sympathy, because they brought this on themselves.
As far back as the 2008 campaign, the core of the Republican marketing strategy has been to discredit Barack Obama by depicting him as the much-feared “other” — an unAmerican, even anti-American, Muslim, anti-colonial socialist Kenyan, etc. The notion never really penetrated the general population, but among much of the GOP base it has grown into an article of faith, as much a sign of Republican fealty as a no-tax pledge and the adoration of Ronald Reagan. From its humble beginnings in the fertile imaginations of Orly Taitz and others, it has become the GOP’s Frankenstein, a monstrous creation that they no longer control and in fact now fear.
It has, for example, given them a nightmare called Donald Trump, who has used the birther issue to rise to near-frontrunner status among potential GOP presidential candidates. But remember, Trump did not create that sentiment; opportunist that he is, he merely tapped into what was already there. In fact, by saying outright what other GOP candidates had been coyly suggesting or hinting at, he kind of gave the game away. He made explicit what the party establishment had tried to keep implicit, and by doing so forced them to finally confront it.
But it may be too late. Just this week, a New York Times poll found that 45 percent of Republican voters profess to believe that Obama was born elsewhere; only 33 percent would admit the truth, that he was born in Hawaii. (A Fox News poll earlier this month showed similar numbers).
In Arizona, the arch-conservative governor, Jan Brewer, was forced to veto a bill this week that would have required Obama to produce his “long-form” birth certificate to get on that state’s ballot in 2012. The bill had passed the Arizona House 40-18 and the Senate 20-9.
In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal has announced he will sign such a bill if it reaches his desk. Oklahoma is about to pass such a law as well.
And here in Georgia, of course, state Rep. Mark Hatfield initially enlisted a majority of his House colleagues to sign on as cosponsors of a birther bill until saner heads prevailed. But Hatfield hasn’t given up:
“If one state passes, and the Obama administration basically ignores the requirement and does not qualify for the ballot in that state, that would send a very strong signal that we have a situation in the United States where someone who is not eligible is occupying the White House,” the Waycross Republican said this week, noting that “other states, including Georgia, have a duty to step up.” Such legislation is guaranteed to keep the issue in the political spotlight.
The point man for the GOP establishment’s effort to repudiate its illegitimate offspring has been Karl Rove, which itself is telling. Rove doesn’t have to run for anything, and he risks nothing with his unequivocal repudiation of birtherism. But party figures, including presidential hopefuls, who are dependent on the GOP base for votes don’t dare to be so blunt about the ridiculous nature of the charge.
Rove, in fact, has even tried to suggest that the whole thing is some plot against the GOP concocted by the White House, which would be very cool if true. Alas, it is not. Others on the right have demanded that the president save them from themselves by doing something, anything, that would end the debate. But why? If your opposition is self-destructing, why on earth would you come to their rescue?
Besides, nothing Obama could say or do would end this thing, as political scientist David Redlawsk of Rutgers University explains:
“The reality is that “facts” are unlikely to mean much to those who believe in their gut that Obama is not American. Political psychologists call this “motivated reasoning.” It goes something like this: I dislike someone; I learn something positive that should make me feel better about him; instead, I dislike him as much or even more. This is clearly irrational, but our feelings about people are complicated, and we tend to hold on to them even in the face of contradictory information. This is not unique to those who dislike Obama.
We are all somewhat impervious to new information, preferring the beliefs in which we are already invested. We often ignore new contradictory information, actively argue against it or discount its source, all in an effort to maintain existing evaluations. Reasoning away contradictions this way is psychologically easier than revising our feelings. In this sense, our emotions color how we perceive “facts.”….
In the case of President Obama, people who already dislike him at a gut level have little motivation to revise their beliefs, whether about his place of birth or, as we have found in other research, the persisting belief that he is Muslim. It’s not the evidence that matters. Feelings come first, and evidence is used mostly in service of those feelings. Evidence that supports what is already believed is accepted, that which contradicts it is not.
So the smart bet is that the birthplace issue, the Muslim issue, and any other ways in which Obama can be portrayed as outside the mainstream are not going away. And no amount of data to the contrary will change that for some people. The simple reality is people feel before they think. And when those feelings are strong enough, facts take a back seat.”
Having created a political movement around such “motivated reasoning” in which emotion substitutes for fact, the masterminds of the GOP now have to deal with its consequences.
It’s downright entertaining, don’t you think?
-- Jay Bookman