Winston Churchill famously described fanatics as those who "can't change their mind and won't change the subject." It's an appraisal that also could be applied to those deranged Americans who continue to insist that President Obama is neither a U.S. citizen nor a Christian.
The so-called birther fantasy tends to go hand in hand with the belief that the president is secretly a Muslim militant scheming to impose Sharia law on the United States. American politics are no more immune to the corrosive effects of irrational and conspiratorial thinking than those of any other nation, which is why Republican leaders are courting the perilous and the unpredictable when they wink at this latest iteration of the paranoid style.
House Speaker John A. Boehner provided a particularly stark example of this sort of evasion Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." The Ohio Republican was shown a clip of Iowa voters expressing their belief that Obama is a Muslim and was asked whether he felt any responsibility to "speak out against that kind of ignorance." Boehner replied: "I believe the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian. I'll take him at his word." But he then went on to say: "It's not my job to tell the American people what to think. The American people have the right to think what they want to think."
Putting aside for the moment the question of why establishing the president's citizenship or religious faith requires taking anyone at their "word," the issue isn't whether people have a right to believe dangerously idiotic things. Of course they do; there's no way to stop them. The issue is whether people have the right to act on their bizarre fantasies, which is precisely what carrying them into electoral politics entails.
The real reasons for Boehner's unseemly bobbing and weaving are clear, though they do neither him nor similarly inclined members of the GOP hierarchy credit. A national poll conducted over the weekend and released Tuesday by PPP — a firm that usually works for Democratic candidates but enjoys a nonpartisan reputation for accuracy — found that 51% of likely Republican primary voters believe that Obama was born outside the United States. More than 80% of the likely voters with a favorable impression of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin do not believe the president is a citizen.
So far this year, GOP lawmakers in 10 states have introduced bills that would require presidential candidates to prove, in some fashion, that they were born in the United States. The statute proposed in Connecticut would require the secretary of state to view an "original birth certificate" before certifying a candidate for the ballot.
"We don't think the president was vetted, and it's just that simple," state Rep. Leo Berman, a sponsor of Texas' birther bill, told the Politico website. He also said he doesn't know whether Obama is "a citizen or not."
Birther blather and the paranoid mutterings about Sharia are the cruder expressions of a more generalized assault on this presidency's legitimacy that now suffuses a substantial part of the Republican political discussion.
Conservative commentator Michael Medved pointedly drew attention to it this week, citing a post on an influential GOP website that darkly mused, "Obama is not naive at all, but he instead knows only too well what he is doing, for he is eagerly promoting Islamic power in the world while diminishing the West." Some of this nonsense derives, as Medved points out, from Dinesh D'Souza's bestselling "The Roots of Obama's Rage," which argues that the president is "a man driven by the anti-colonial ideology of his [Kenyan] father and the first American president to actually seek to reduce America's strength, influence and standard of living."
Palin has made similar allegations a mainstay of her appearances; she recently told a radio talk show audience that "what Obama is doing [is] purposefully weakening America — because he understood that debt weakened America, domestically and internationally, and yet now he supports increasing the debt."
Rush Limbaugh, the GOP's de facto chairman, has gone so far as to allege that Obama's supposed antipathy to the United States is somehow linked to his race. "There's no question that payback is what this administration is all about," Limbaugh recently fumed, "presiding over the decline of the United States of America and doing so happily."
What Boehner and the other sober heads in the Republican leadership ought to consider is the difference between questioning Obama's policies and his legitimacy. It's a profound and consequential distinction.