Democrats, Media Keep ‘Birther’ Story Alive

by Doug Heye

The nagging issue of “Birthers” raises a chicken/egg question: It is an issue that lingers of its own accord, or does it linger because the media won’t let it go away?

Republicans appearing on cable to talk about important issues of the day — unemployment, the national debt, Egypt, Wisconsin, etc. — can bet the “Birther” question will come up. And there appears to be nothing a Republican can do to satisfy an interviewer on this question. It is not enough to state a belief in the president’s Christianity, or that one takes the president at his word. In question after question, interviewers call on Republicans to condemn, repeatedly, rumors they neither believe nor spread; then they condemn the condemnation for not being condemnatory enough.

And so the issue keeps coming up. It’s self-perpetuating. Twice in the past week, George Stephanopoulos has asked Republican guests on Good Morning America about it. David Gregory routinely does the same on Meet the Press.

That doesn’t take into account the cable shows — whether news, opinion, or commentary — where it is often topic #1. Recently on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, the issue came up again when the host, hardly a member of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, surprisingly said he does not believe President Obama is a Christian. Some days, Hardball could practically change its name to “BirtherWatch.”

I can speak to Hardball’s obsession with the issue with some authority. Shortly before a late August broadcast, while I was working for the Republican National Committee, a Newsweek reporter asked for the committee’s position regarding questions about President Obama’s religion. I told the reporter the RNC had not discussed the issue, precisely because it had not.

This raised the ire of Chris Matthews, who in that night’s program called Republican responses on the issue a “pitch-perfect dog whistle to the haters” and said that the Right was attempting to “de-Americanize the president” and “played birther politics with abandon.”

“The Republican National Committee knows this is a hot issue today,” Matthews thundered. “They’re prepared to answer it, and their answer is ‘We’re not talking.’” (A-ha, the old “keep an issue alive by not talking about it” ruse!)

The next day, August 24, I issued a statement on behalf of the committee that read: “The RNC has never spoken about the President’s Christianity because it is both crystal clear and a non-issue. What is an issue, and remains foremost in the minds of voters is the failed efforts of Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to grow jobs. Today, it was announced that existing home sales plunged by 27%; discussing this issue will serve the voters far better than any nonsense that won’t employ a single American.”

That statement, which the Huffington Post called “clear and direct in putting to bed the Muslim rumors” and which should have been music to Matthews’s ears, was never mentioned on Hardball.

And so when a Democratic polling firm released a poll whose results conveniently said that 51 percent of Republican primary voters questioned President Obama’s place of birth, it was off to the races again — even though Republicans still were not talking about the issue except when asked about it by the media. Indeed, in three days of Conservative Political Action Conference speeches, the issue was mentioned exactly once.

Every week, party officials submit question ideas they hope Sunday-show guests will be asked. There’s no doubt that Democrats routinely push for Republican elected officials to be asked about the president’s birthplace and/or religion. Tactically, it’s a smart move: Keep the Republican elected officials talking about something they don’t believe while the media and/or the Democrats get to use the word “fringe” over and over. But let’s not confuse shrewd, if disingenuous, political tactics with substance.

Last month, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank declared a 30-day personal  moratorium on all things Sarah Palin. Here’s a suggestion for a media that appears to want to work itself into a lather over this nonsense issue: Stop talking about it. After a while, the media might like the results; in the meantime, we can discuss serious issues.

— Doug Heye served in the George W. Bush administration, in leading communications positions in the House and Senate, and most recently as the communications director of the Republican National Committee.