Dana Milbank
Opinion writer October 21, 2011

Say what you will about the birthers, but don’t call them partisan.

The people who brought you the Barack Obama birth-certificate hullabaloo now have a new target: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a man often speculated to be the next Republican vice presidential nominee. While they’re at it, they also have Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana and perhaps a future presidential candidate, in their sights.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Each man, the birthers say, is ineligible to be president because he runs afoul of the constitutional requirement that a president must be a “natural born citizen” of the United States. Rubio’s parents were Cuban nationals at the time of his birth, and Jindal’s parents were citizens of India.

The good news for the birthers is that this suggests they were going after Obama, whose father was a Kenyan national, not because of the president’s political party. The bad news is that this supports the suspicion that they were going after Obama because of his race.

When I heard of the birthers’ latest targets, from a participant in my online chat, I figured it was a joke. But, sure enough, Alex Leary of the St. Petersburg Times reported that various bright lights of the birther community – Mario Apuzzo, Charles Kerchner and Orly Taitz – were casting doubt on Rubio’s eligibility.

“Senator Marco Rubio is not a natural born citizen of the United States to constitutional standards,” Kerchner writes on his blog. “He was born a dual citizen of both Cuba and the USA. He is thus not eligible to serve as the president or vice president.” A few months ago, Kerchner used the same logic to proclaim, “Jindal is NOT a natural-born citizen of the United States. His parents were not U.S. citizens when he was born.”

This relies on a rather expansive interpretation of “natural born.” At this rate, it is surely only a matter of time before birthers begin to pronounce candidates ineligible if they were born by C-section, or if their mothers were given pain medications during childbirth. Will Donald Trump demand to see their medical records?

The absurd accusations of the birthers by themselves won’t stop Jindal or Rubio from becoming president. There are far more serious impediments in their way — most recently a devastating report by The Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia proving false the central narrative of Rubio’s political rise: that he is the son of exiles who fled Cuba under Castro. In fact, his parents left the island, apparently for economic reasons, 21 / 2 years before Castro came to power.

But the wild new turn the birthers have taken should serve as a timely reminder to Republican leaders that they need to push back more forcefully against the angry and the unstable in their ranks. Too often, they have done the opposite. Jindal, for example, encouraged the birthers this year when he announced his support for legislation that would require candidates for federal office to show proof of their U.S. birth before being allowed on the ballot in Louisiana. It was, as many pointed out, a sad gesture for a man born Piyush Jindal.

Similarly, few of the Republican presidential candidates have condemned the spectators at the presidential debates who applauded the death penalty, the idea that those without health insurance should be left to die and the sentiment that the jobless are to blame for being unemployed. And it seems doubtful that we’ll hear from Republican leaders about Tea Party Nation’s new effort to get business leaders to pledge not to hire people until the Democrats’ “war against business” ends.

Of course, extremism isn’t a uniquely Republican problem. My colleague Jennifer Rubin, noting a number of anti-Semitic messages seen at Occupy Wall Street events, asked last week: “Respectable politicians and media outlets, where is the outrage?” There’s no evidence that the demonstrators blaming Jewish bankers for the nation’s troubles are anything but a small minority. But that doesn’t excuse public figures from an obligation to push back against the extremes.

The higher prominence of loons of all stripes is a natural consequence of a political system that has lost every last vestige of a political center. But in the Obama age, this is particularly a problem for Republican lawmakers who are cowed into silence by the fear that any criticism of the crazies will invite a primary challenge. Now that the birthers have begun to eat their own brightest prospects, perhaps Republican lawmakers will finally feel compelled to say something.

danamilbank@washpost.com