As the 2012 presidential campaign approaches, a birther backlash is emerging among Republican elites. This backlash provides an example of a dynamic we’re likely to see more of during the campaign, as the interests of the Republican Party and Fox News being to diverge. While Fox News and the GOP normally have a symbiotic relationship, the interest Republican politicians have in not looking like cranks is in conflict with Fox News’s interest in promoting cranks to get ratings.
Donald Trump recently thrust himself into the spotlight by publicly embracing birtherism, and as a result Fox News has gotten more comfortable trafficking in the conspiracy theory. At the same time, both Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty , both of whom are far more viable candidates, have publicly rejected birtherism while positioning themselves for presidential runs.
In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos yesterday, President Obama confronted the conspiracy theories about his birth, while also noting the problems they pose for the other side:
Well you know, I think that over the last two and a half years there's been an effort to go at me in a way that is politically expedient in the short-term for Republicans. But creates, I think, a problem for them when they want to actually run in a general election where most people feel pretty confident the president was born where he says he was, in Hawaii. (LAUGHS) He — he doesn't have horns. We may disagree with him on some issues, and we may wish that, you know, the unemployment rate was coming down faster, and we want him to know his plan on gas prices. But we're not really worrying about conspiracy theories or — or birth certificates. And so . . . I . . . I think it presents a problem for them. But, look, I right now have such a big day job that I am not yet focused on what's happening on the other side. There'll be a time where I’m — I'm very focused on it.
The president has an awkward tightrope to walk on this stuff. Reacting angrily could energize the fringe, and correctly attributing birtherism to racism would simply be another opening for Republicans to complain that the president thinks his all of his critics are racists. So he has to shrug and laugh and say he doesn’t take it personally.
He did, however, accurately describe how birtherism could become a political liability. As former Bush administration official Peter Wehner wrote earlier this week:
When prominent figures in a party play footsie with peddlers of paranoia, the party suffers an erosion of credibility. While certain corners of a party’s base might be energized by conspiracy theories, the majority of the electorate will be turned off by them. People are generally uneasy about political institutions that give a home to cranks.
Conservative commentators such as Karl Rove and Ann Coulter have tried to persuade conservatives to abandon birtherism by describing it a secret liberal plot, but that hasn’t worked. As much as establishment Republicans want to believe that birtherism is a “trap” set for them by liberals, the truth is that it’s the easiest trap in the world to escape — it’s just that until now, Republican leaders have chosen to placate or avoid offending birthers by engaging in post-birtherism or pseudo-birtherism.
This is a problem of Republicans’ own creation, and it’s one that illustrates what is likely to be one of the more odder elements of the 2012 presidential race — the distinction between what helps the GOP win elections, and what helps Fox get ratings.