The flap over Mitt Romney's crack on Friday that "no one's ever asked to see my birth certificate" has focused mostly on whether Romney was "dog-whistling" an affirmation to Republican base voters who cling to the conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was born abroad and faked his Hawaiian birth records. This misses the point.
What Romney was doing was straight out of Mark Penn's infamous March 2007 memo. Penn, then Hillary Clinton's chief campaign strategist, argued that Obama is "not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and his values." This led to advice for the Clinton campaign: "Let's explicitly own 'American' in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn't.… Let's add flag symbols to the backgrounds."
Romney didn't suggest that Obama was literally foreign-born, and he's been clear that he doesn't believe he was. What Romney was intimating was that Obama has given people cause to wonder how American he really is. Romney, unlike Obama, is so clearly American that no document check is necessary.
What makes Obama look "non-American" to some conservatives isn't just his birth to a Kenyan father. It's his upbringing around the world and in remote Hawaii, his background in elite coastal institutions and academia, and his liberal politics.
Last month, top Romney surrogate John Sununu said Obama should "learn how to be an American." The context was Obama's "you didn't build that" speech, and what Sununu deemed to be his un-American view of how jobs should be created. Again, Sununu knows that Obama was born a U.S. citizen; his contention is that Obama is not American in spirit.
This line of attack is not new with Obama. Republicans threw similar gibes at John Kerry. Bush Commerce Secretary Don Evans famously said of Kerry during the 2004 campaign, "He looks French." This was meant as an insult.
John Kerry was born in Colorado, but he actually does have links to France. His mother's family has an estate in Brittany, and while he was running for president, his cousin served as mayor of the village of Saint-Briac-sur-Mer. As The Guardian reported in 2004, the Kerry campaign sought desperately to de-emphasize these facts.
Even fellow Republicans aren't immune. Earlier this year, Newt Gingrich ran an ad attacking Mitt Romney that included the line "And just like John Kerry, he speaks French, too."
All of which is to say, Obama isn't the first candidate Republicans will attack as less than fully American and he won't be the last. (And as the Penn and Gingrich examples show, these attacks sometimes come from fellow Democrats or toward fellow Republicans.)
Obama is black, so his race is inevitably a part of "othering" him. If he's not American, the implication must be that he is Kenyan. And Obama's race is at the core of other attacks on him, such as the spurious claims that his administration is undermining the Clinton-era welfare reforms. Romney said yesterday that Obama was undermining work requirements in welfare to "shore up his base."
But I think Obama's blackness is just an incidental part of the attacks on him as foreign. Imagine that Obama's father had been a French academic rather than a Kenyan one. Wouldn't the narrative of Obama's "secret French birth" be similarly irresistible fodder for conspiracists on the right?
What Romney was up to on the stump last week wasn't just stoking the fires under the birth certificate conspiracy that won't die. It was continuing the Republican tradition of asserting that their party's agenda is the only truly American one. That's something that should irritate all Democrats -- even Mark Penn.
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