Monday, August 10, 2009

Oh, please (again)

(I may have to make “Oh, please” a category.)

JustOneMinute is writing about Andrew Sullivan’s latest offering on the Obama birth certificate issue. As JOM points out, Sullivan is now recanting his desire to see Obama’s Original Birth Certificate and is convinced the birther controversy is all about race. JOM does a good job poking holes in Sullivan’s weak understanding of this issue but there were two points in Sullivan’s article that JOM didn’t deal with.

The first one is a relatively small point but demonstrates the sloppiness of both Sullivan’s research and his thinking:

In fact, a majority of Republican voters — 58% — either do not believe or are unsure that Obama is a natural-born American citizen. That means most Republicans believe Obama is constitutionally illegitimate in the presidency because the constitution reserves it for those born in America.

Although Sullivan did not bother to provide a link, I was able to track down the poll that gave him that 58% number. The numbers break down this way for Republicans:

QUESTION: Do you believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States of America or not?

42% Yes
28% No
30% Not sure

Oddly, this poll did not appear to have a “Don’t know” answer (which is not the same as a “Not sure” answer). Furthermore, since the percentages add up to exactly 100% neither does it appear to have had a measurable number of respondents who said, “I’ve never though about it”, “I have no idea”, “What?”, or “You have got to be kidding”. Or, of course, all the respondents who actually said they didn’t know, didn’t care, didn’t understand the question, or couldn’t figure out why the heck they were being asked this question got lumped into the “Not sure” group. Call me cynical but since this is a Daily Kos poll, I’m inclined to believe the “lumping” explanation.

Thus when Sullivan asserts that the 30% who who ended up in the “Not sure” group necessarily “believe Obama is constitutionally illegitimate in the presidency” he is making two errors. First, the “not sure” contingent are just as likely to not care or never have thought about it. (Even Kos only considers those who answered “No” to be “Obama-hating conspiracy theorists”.) So, for example, I could have written an article based on this poll and said:

In fact, only a minority of Republican voters - 28% - believe Obama is not a natural-born American citizen. That means the vast majority of Republicans - 72% - do not question Obama’s legitimacy as President, an office the Constitution reserves for those born in America.

Except I’d never write that because Sullivan’s got another problem tucked in there. The Constitution does not reserve the Presidency for those born in America. It reserves the Presidency for those who are natural born citizens - which as far as I can tell simply means those who were United States citizens at birth. Apparently Sullivan missed the fact that John McCain - born in Panama - also ran for President last year but it’s entirely possible some of the respondents lumped into “Not sure” didn’t. Which is Sullivan’s second error in assigning them to the “believe Obama is constitutionally illegitimate in the presidency”: even someone who had no idea whether Obama was born in the United States doesn’t necessarily think that disqualifies him from being President.

The second problematic point Sullivan makes and JOM doesn’t address directly is bigger and scarier:

The chilling implication is that a large number of Americans believe the president has no right to be in office and has fraudulently manoeuvred himself there.

I hope the secret service is on alert. If we thought racial panic had ended with Obama’s election, the resilience of this story in key parts of the country is a helpful wake-up call.

And how is this different from all the Democrats who thought Bush had no right to be in office and had fraudulently maneuvered himself there? You remember. All those people who thought - still think - that the 2000 election was stolen by Florida and the Supreme Court and the 2004 election was (I’m a little vague on this) stolen by voting machines in Ohio? Were those Democrats motivated by “racial panic”?

I’ve said it before: most of the birth certificate brouhaha has little to do with race and everything to do with exotic. We’d be hearing the same stories if Obama was born to an American mother and a Russian father, raised in the Ukraine by a Ukrainian stepfather (legal or courtesy), and then proceeded to spend literally incomprehensible sums of money; prop up Wall Street fat cats; buy two auto companies; let Congress write a climate change bill that is massive, expensive, and stupid; and let Congress write a health care bill (or two or three or seven) that scares people half to death.

This is about people who hate Obama’s policies and find him personally objectionable (socialist, Bill Ayer’s buddy, charming sociopath) trying to prove he’s not really their President or not really the President. It is exactly the same impulse that drove people who hated Bush’ polices and found him personally objectionable (fascist, stupid, in thrall to Halliburton, charming dry drunk) to try to prove he wasn’t really their President or wasn’t really the President. This type of endeavor is pointless, divisive, and incredibly tiresome. But it isn’t racist.

The real concern here is not that some people believe Obama was born outside the United States or that Sullivan is sloppy and slavish. The real concern is that if the drumbeat of “anyone who opposes Obama is a racist” gets louder it will do far more damage to the country than any birther conspiracy ever could. I worried about this during the campaign when the race card was so much in evidence and I was pleasantly surprised when the cries of “racist” largely disappeared after the election and through the first several months of Obama’s Administration. Now those cries are back and they’re incredibly dangerous. It is hard to imagine a more effective legal means of silencing opponents than to smear them as racists every time they speak up. I prefer to believe that Obama realizes exactly how dangerous this path is since he has not himself played the race card.

This re-dealing of the race card does make me wonder if I should amend something I said in my previous post:

[Democrats/liberals/progressives] are so certain that any decent, thinking person would agree with them they have no mechanism for dealing with those who don’t except to insist such people are either evil or idiotic.

Do you think I need to add “or racist” to the end or is that pretty much covered by “idiotic”?

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