President Obama's comments on the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero sparked mixed responses from lawmakers over the weekend. As incumbents and candidates take to the campaign trail over recess, debate over the mosque could become an election issue.
Obama on Friday night at the White House Iftar dinner, celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, said Muslims have the right to build a mosque near the Lower Manhattan site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but did not say whether he believes it should happen. He said he understood the emotions attached to the issue. "As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," said Obama. "And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."
Obama's comments, which were part of a longer pre-dinner speech, became the talk of the town on the Sunday morning talk show circuit. Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that while the decision on the mosque will likely be up to local New York officials, "I think it does speak to the lack of connection between the administration and Washington and folks inside the Beltway and mainstream America." [See where Cornyn's campaign cash comes from.]
When asked on Fox News Sunday whether Obama's comments will become an election issue this fall, Cornyn said, "I think this is sort of the dichotomy that people sense, that they're being lectured to, not listened to, and I think that's the reason why a lot of people are very upset with Washington. So I think to that extent, yes."
Other Republicans acknowledged the freedom of religion argument but said this particular case requires a judgement call. New York Republican Rep. Peter King told CNN's State of the Union that the wounds of 9/11 are not yet healed and that Obama's comments Saturday beg more questions. "I think the president, by the way, is trying to have it both ways, because I don't know of anyone who was saying that Muslims do not have the right to practice their religion, but with rights go responsibilities, and that's the part of it the president did not comment on."
House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio agreed. "The fact that someone has the right to do something doesn't necessarily make it the right thing to do," he said in a statement. "This is a basic issue of respect for a tragic moment in our history." [See who donates to Boehner's campaign.]
Obama's response to the mosque has already hit the campaign trail in Florida and not just on the Republican side. Florida Democrat Jeff Greene, who is challenging Rep. Kendrick Meek in the Democratic Senate primary on August 24, said Obama is wrong. "President Obama has this all wrong and I strongly oppose his support for building a mosque near Ground Zero especially since Islamic terrorists have bragged and celebrated destroying the Twin Towers and killing nearly 3,000 Americans," Greene said in a statement. "Common sense and respect for those who lost their lives and loved ones gives sensible reason to build the mosque someplace else."
Obama visited Florida's Panama City Beach over the weekend to tour the oil spill recovery efforts, where he also clarified his Friday night comments. "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there," he said. After meeting with the president and other local officials, Republican-turned-Independent Senate hopeful Gov. Charlie Crist agreed with Obama. "I know there are sensitivities and I understand them," he said. "This is a place where you're supposed to be able to practice your religion without the government telling you, you can't."
While some, like Cornyn, argue the decision of whether to build the mosque is a local one, Obama's comments over the weekend put the issue on the national stage and could give more fuel to candidates looking to distance themselves from the president. With less than three months to go until the November elections, the weekend responses from both incumbents and candidates will likely not be the last.