Republicans jumped on President Barack Obama's defense of a proposed mosque near where the World Trade Center stood before the Sept. 11 attacks, seeking to make his comments a campaign issue.
Democrats meanwhile sought to change the subject. Many appeared uncomfortable with both the timing and the content of the president's statements.
Obama’s comments Friday placed him in the middle of the controversy over a Muslim group’s plans for a mosque near the site of the 2001 attack — and in turn, transformed an emotion-laden local dispute in New York into a nationwide debate overnight. He sought Saturday to clarify his remarks as Democrats remained mostly quiet, hoping the controversy would blow over. It didn't.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) disputed Obama's contention that the mosque controversy was about religious freedom, and predicted it would be an election-year issue.
“It demonstrates that Washington, the White House, the administration, the president himself seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America. And I think that's one of the reasons people are so frustrated," said Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “This is the dichotomy that people sense — that they’re being lectured to, not listened to.”
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the recruitment chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, suggested the GOP might seek to capitalize on Obama’s decision to weigh in on the proposed ground zero mosque.
Adamant that voters will care more about the persistently high unemployment rate in the midterm elections than anything else, the rising Republican star sought to frame the president’s comments as demonstrating that he’s out of touch.
“It’s going to be about jobs,” McCarthy said. “But this is just another example: Why isn’t the president spending the time debating about jobs instead of moving into New York? And why is he so unsensitive about this area as well, to engage in a local issue that’s causing a problem throughout the nation when the nation shows a sensitivity, and a deep sensitivity, to this exact location?”
The comments came during a debate with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Van Hollen sought to keep the controversial construction project from becoming a major national issue that could dog Democrats in November. He insisted that Obama did no more than assert a general constitutional “principle” and defer to the judgment of New Yorkers.
“I think it’s up to the people of New York,” he added, when prodded about his personal opinion. “They are obviously the folks who are right there at the site of the attack of 9/11, and it's a question for them.”
Van Hollen, appearing from California — where it was just after 6 a.m. — looked tired and sounded uncharacteristically nervous as he tackled questions about the mosque. And it was clear the issue was not the one he’d most like to talk about.
That became clear as he sought to change the subject to how some House Republicans had not voted to give health benefits to certain people who responded to the Sept. 11 attacks — something he said Congress does indeed have control over.
Many of the frontline Democrats he’s trying to protect from his perch as chairman of the campaign committee will also now need to address the mosque issue, which had largely stayed isolated to the tristate area around New York City until the president chose to weigh in Friday during a dinner at the White House. A recent CNN poll found that 68 percent of Americans oppose the project.
But a top White House official told POLITICO Obama was determined to raise the issue, even though he knew polls were decisively against the mosque. “We had no illusions about this. He didn't take this on as a political strategy. He took it on because it was a matter of fundamental principle. One of the reasons we work for him is that he doesn’t sit there with a political calculator on these big, tough issues that come along. There was never any hesitation about the decision, and he has absolutely no regrets about it. He understands the emotions swirling around it and the horrific events that occurred there. But he doesn’t believe shifting from our moorings as a country on questions like religious freedom -- treating one faith differently than another -- is the right answer. It would be a betrayal of who we are.”
Most other Democrats have remained silent, with Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic congressman who represents ground zero, offering the most vigorous defense so far.
“There’s no way for government to block this,” the liberal congressman said on CNN’s “State of the Union," reiterating a point he made in a statement Saturday.
Nadler said public opinion shouldn’t matter and stressed his fundamental belief that government has no right or business to comment one way or another on an issue of this sort.
“We do not put the Bill of Rights, we do not put religious freedom, to a vote,” he said. “I hope that people will understand that government has no role in this.”
Mike Allen contributed to this report.