Back in the 20th Century there was a time where the models for the Republican Party were Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, men of consequence and vision, men who did not toddy to public whims. Even Robert Taft, a conservative Repuiblican of the 1940’s and ’50’s, was seen as a Profile in Courage for his opposition to the Nuremberg Trials. JFK Library.
Today, the Republican Party is being led by small people afraid of their own shadow. Town-hall audiences question President Obama’s birthplace and qualification to be President [‘birtherism’] and not one Republican ‘leader’ has the temerity to draw a line in the sand. GOP Post-Birtherism. That’s also true of the questions raised about Obama’s Christian beliefs. Leaders of the GOP mollify their base by making jokes about the issues and parroting the same, bland line: “taking him at his word” [see Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Michele Bachman].
The result of this is predictable, a reinforcement of these conspiracy beliefs. A high percentage [51%] of GOP primary election voters erroneously believe the President was not born in the US, and, similarly, that he is not a practicing Christian. The latter is a private matter but the former issue can affect the qualifications of a person to run for President. So strong is the birtherism belief that it’s become a screen used by pollsters to gauge the views of the conservative Republcan base. A Screen for Ideology. As pointed out by one commentator in 2010, some people “want to hold onto doubt regardless of evidence.” Cagle.
The problem isn’t the existence of questions; people will always ask questions. The problem is that they are being used to call into doubt the legitimacy of the election and Presidency of Barack Obama and to chip away at his authority to lead us at a time when one would think issues of jobs, the economy, climate change, the wars, etc., would be primary issues of concern.
And the birtherism and religion questions aren’t the only challenges being made to Obama’s authority to govern, and giving rise to the decried lack of ‘civility’ in our discourse. Instead of challenging a person’s public policies through the use of evidence, facts, reasoning and arguments, challenges are posed by questioning a person’s authenticity, authority, patriotism, personal belief system, and perhaps their very right to exist. [Congressman Paul Broun laughed recently when an member of his townhall audience asked “Who’s gonna shoot Obama”? TalkingPointsMemo ]
A significant cause of these challenges to authority instead of policy is the participation of various Republican ‘leaders’ in those challenges, as shown by the examples above. Rather than debate various Obama policy positions on facts and evidence rather than belief and wonder, Republican ‘leaders’ try to deflect serious discussions about serious issues by changing the question to whether the issue is even worthy of discussion because of the illegitimacy of those on the other side of the issue.
President Obama discussed this problem back in early 2010 when he met with House Republicans at their retreat in Baltimore. He pointed out the very real danger to finding policy solutions:
I'm a big believer not just in the value of a loyal opposition, but in its necessity. Having differences of opinion, having a real debate about matters of domestic policy and national security -- and that's not something that's only good for our country, it's absolutely essential. It's only through the process of disagreement and debate that bad ideas get tossed out and good ideas get refined and made better. And that kind of vigorous back and forth -- that imperfect but well-founded process, messy as it often is -- is at the heart of our democracy. . . These are serious times, and what's required by all of us -- Democrats and Republicans -- is to do what's right for our country, even if it's not always what's best for our politics. . . . So all I'm saying is, we've got to close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality. I'm not suggesting that we're going to agree on everything, whether it's on health care or energy or what have you, but if the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don't have a lot of room to negotiate with me.
I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. You've given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you've been telling your constituents is, this guy is doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America.
And I would just say that we have to think about tone. It's not just on your side, by the way -- it's on our side, as well. This is part of what's happened in our politics, where we demonize the other side so much that when it comes to actually getting things done, it becomes tough to do.
And despite the rise in assassination commentary and plots, violence against those of differing opinions, the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords, and other examples of our diminished public discourse, leaders of the Republican Party string their adherents along and fail to confront their own responsibility for this situation. And, ultimately, the responsibility lies with individual voters and citizens who view themselves as Republicans or conservatives, who don’t have any problems with the right of President Obama to hold his office or practice his religion, but who stay silent. Spiro Agnew used to speak of the Silent Majority. The question now is whether the Republican Party or conservative cause has a Silent Majority of people who want to challenge policies based on facts, evidence, argument, rather than vitriol. And whether they will rise to their duty to refocus the debate on issues and not personality.