On “Political Capital with Al Hunt” last weekend Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus called the issue of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate a “big distraction.” Texas Governor Rick Perry used the very same word -- “distraction” -- to describe the recurring brouhaha.
If only it were true. Priebus has said he believes Obama was born in Hawaii -- an unremarkable statement that counts as a courageous reckoning with the truth in some circles. Other conservative leaders find birtherism “a good issue to keep alive,” as Perry remarked last week. In fact, birtherism is just one element of a more general critique applied not only to the Obama presidency but to the Democratic Party, the federal government, the judiciary and the social contract as it has existed for a half century.
In the early days of movement conservatism, many of the political operatives supporting Senator Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign concluded that the rival camp of Rockefeller moderates was not merely an opposing force but an illegitimate one. They worked diligently to crush the Rockefeller wing, eschewing any compromise. It took a few decades, but they have largely succeeded, and in the process recreated the Republican Party in their image.
The belief that Democrats elected to government are not just philosophical opponents but illegal usurpers has similar roots, and is similarly impervious to argument or, in the case of Obama, to the votes of 69 million Americans. The movement’s true believers have a tendency to view any outcome they do not favor as ipso facto illegitimate. This reflex has fueled all manner of excess in recent years, from the monomaniacal pursuit of scandal in the Clinton years, which ended only with the president’s impeachment, to the spectacle of high public officials flirting with conspiracy theories about President Obama’s right to hold office.
Rick Perry’s path to the Republican nomination will require consolidating the support of the party’s most conservative voters, many of whom view rival Mitt Romney as an heir to Rockefeller (not to mention Romney’s own father, a leading Republican moderate in his day). For Perry, exploiting birtherism is not a gaffe, it's a strategy. For other Republican leaders, it's hard to distinguish political tactics from moral cowardice.
There is nothing nutty about Speaker John Boehner, an eminently reasonable man. But he was still demurring about the president's roots more than two years after Obama’s swearing in, saying “it's not my job to tell the American people what to think.” Likewise, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell parries questions about Obama's legitimacy with variations on “I take him at his word," a rhetorical curlicue that enables McConnell to indulge his party's fantasists without taking responsibility for an answer.
There are many reasons for the crisis of confidence Americans feel about their government – a financial meltdown and grinding unemployment topping the list. But there is little question that decades of concerted attacks on Congress, the courts and on the legitimacy of government itself have achieved the desired ends. Perry, the governor of one of the nation’s largest states and a leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president, did not resort to birtherism out of the wild blue. He pulled it from a deep well of tactics that seek to drown legitimate policy differences in the kind of suspicion and resentment that brook no response. If Obama's presidency is illegal, what's to discuss?
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)