The Obama Birth Certificate Issue is a Dangerous Distraction for Republicans

Odd hang-up over Obama's citizenship could undo the party's recent successes.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Intensity matters in politics and, at times, is more important than approval.

It may be, and the ratings certainly suggested this was the case, that the television viewing public preferred Jay Leno to David Letterman when choosing which late-night talk show to watch. From a political standpoint, however, it would do a candidate for elective office little good at the polls to announce he was a "Leno person" or to denounce Letterman. Preference in late-night talk show hosts is simply not an issue on which people vote.

On the other hand there are issues which, while they matter little to the vast majority of the electorate, are of great importance to a minority of voters; indeed these issues do a lot to shape the attitudes of these voters and to direct their behavior in the voting booth.

The issue of Barack Obama's citizenship falls into that latter category.

There are those who, despite ample evidence to the contrary, maintain that Obama was born outside the United States. And that, as such, he is not a natural-born citizen of this country and is not eligible to hold the high office he now occupies. These people—whom my bloleague Robert Schlesinger calls "birthers"—despite some fairly convincing details on the other side of the argument, argue that the copy of Obama's birth certificate that has been made available for public examination is either an outright fraud or some kind of forgery.

It is true that the advocates of this position have raised some intriguing questions but, as yet, there is little if anything that suggests their argument holds water—much like those who alleged throughout the Bush presidency that there was something sinister in the manner in which George W. Bush ended his obligations to the Texas Air National Guard. A series of questions neither an investigation nor a conclusion make. The burden of proof in both cases is to demonstrate the allegations raised have substance. It is not the responsibility of the subject of those allegations to disprove them.

Nevertheless there are those who believe both to be true. And these people feel very intensely that they are correct.

Moreover, the allegation as it stands is, in a word, bizarre—and of the type for which the country has little stomach. And it could all too easily lend itself to efforts by the Democrats to discredit the GOP as being out of touch with America and embracing an agenda of rack and ruin that, in the end, will come to no good.

Therein lies the danger for the Republicans, who are gaining ground on Obama and the Democrats through their opposition to the stimulus, to the cap and trade national energy tax, and to the effort to nationalize the U.S. healthcare system. The allegation that Obama is not a U.S. citizen, if true, might be enough to dislodge him from office. The way the U.S. courts have made law from the bench over the 40 years does not, however, suggest conclusively that this would be the case. It is entirely possible to conceive of an outcome that would allow him to retain the presidency despite the fact that he was ineligible to run for the office in the first place.

The proper time to have raised this issue, if it needed to be raised at all, was during the primaries. Obama satisfied state election officials and the U.S. Senate, which counted the ballots of the presidential electors without challenge, of his eligibility to be president. The matter should be allowed to drop and the opposition should focus its efforts on winning the policy debates the president has put before the country.

These considerations will, of course, fall on deaf ears where the proponents of the allegations are concerned; but it should be very clear they speak only for themselves and that they are a small if vocal minority who do not deserve the attention they are being given.

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  • Updated on 07/28/09: This article has been updated from an earlier version.