How will the slate of GOP presidential candidates handle the birthers?
Possible candidate Donald Trump provided one answer Thursday when in an interview he inaccurately suggested that President Obama’s childhood and background, documented in two books by Obama as well as a number of biographies, is a mystery.
“He grew up and nobody knew him. You know? When you interview people, if ever I got the nomination, if I ever decide to run, you may go back and interview people from my kindergarten. They’ll remember me,” Trump said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “Nobody ever comes forward. Nobody knows who he his until later in his life. It’s very strange. The whole thing is very strange.”
The incident highlights the challenges that lie ahead for GOP presidential candidates who will be forced to confront the mix of myths, falsehoods and innuendo around the president’s religion, birth and childhood that have been stirred up by some in their base. A Washington Post poll in April 2010 showed 31 percent of Republicans wrongly believe that Obama was born in another country. He was born in Hawaii.
They will campaign in such states as Arizona, Georgia, Connecticut and New Hampshire, where “birther bills” have been introduced by Republicans and debated in legislative sessions.
And they will be asked to choose between either offending the fringe of conservative activists who believe falsehoods about Obama’s background, or offending potential swing voters by not condemning conspiracy theories.
Already, possible candidates have approached the issue in different ways — some with a wink and a nod, others with a flat out dismissal.
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has a preemptive answer that has made its way into his recent speeches.
“Now, I’m not one who questions the existence of the president’s birth certificate,” he said, a line that draws laughter from his conservative audiences. “But when you listen to his policies, don’t you at least wonder what planet he’s from?”
An aide said that Pawlenty, who had dinner in New Hampshire last week with the sponsor of a failed “birther” bill and other tea party leaders, believes Obama was born in the United States and notes that even the president has joked about the issue. (At the Gridiron Dinner last week, Obama came out to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and quipped, “Some things just bear repeating.”)
“I know that the media and certain voices are very focused on this, but it’s just not something that we are focused on,” Pawlenty aide Alex Conant said.
A spokeswoman for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, also weighing a run for the White House and courting conservatives, said that the issue has rarely come up in his travels, and when it does he has a definitive answer.
“He’s said he has no doubt that the resident was born in Hawaii. Both President Obama and the state of Hawaii have said that’s where he was born,” said spokeswoman Virginia Davis.
But among others in the presumed field, the answer has been less clear.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee seemed to flirt with the birthers, falsely suggesting to a conservative talk show host that Obama was raised in Kenya.
A spokesman quickly backpedaled, saying that Huckabee had simply made a slip of the tongue and meant to say Indonesia.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, last fall in an interview with the National Review, posited that Obama, whose father was from Kenya, has a Kenyan mindset, echoing the theme of a controversial book by conservative author Dinesh D’Douza.
“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior,” Gingrich said.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) said in an interview on ABC that Obama’s statements about his faith and background “need to stand for their own.”
“I think we should take the president at his word,” she said.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin said in 2009 that questions around the president’s birth certificate were legitimate but has said since then that the conspiracy theory is an annoying distraction.
GOP strategists agree, saying that the controversy is ginned up by the press and takes away from real discussions of policy differences.
“I’m surprised that people have such a hard time with something that’s so easy,” said Curt Anderson, a Republican strategist.
Anderson said that some flirt with the birthers because they don’t want to alienate part of the base, even though the number of people in the party who would be put off by dismissing the birthers is small.
“The response to these questions should be, ‘Just accept that he is a citizen and he won, and he is the president.’ I don’t think it’s complicated.”