When lawmakers return home for recess in August, they can expect to hear tough questions from constituents on the economy, health care and government spending.
But Republicans are preparing for something else: the birthers.
As GOP Rep. Mike Castle learned the hard way back home in Delaware this month, there’s no easy way to deal with the small but vocal crowd of right-wing activists who refuse to believe that President Obama was born in the United States.
At a town hall meeting in Georgetown, a woman demanded to know why Castle and his colleagues were “ignoring” questions about Obama’s birth certificate — questions that have been put to rest repeatedly by state officials in Hawaii, where the birth certificate and all other credible evidence show that Obama was born in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 1961.
When Castle countered that Obama is, in fact, “a citizen of the United States,” the crowd erupted in boos, the woman seized control of the gathering and led a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. The video went viral; by Sunday, it had been viewed on YouTube more than half a million times.
And birthers say members should expect more of the same in the coming weeks.
“Absolutely,” says California resident Orly Taitz, the Russian-born attorney/dentist who has become a kind of ringleader for the movement. “It is a very important issue, one that politicians should have taken up a long time ago.”
Moments after speaking with POLITICO Saturday, Taitz posted a call to arms on her blog:
“I believe it is a serious concern and I hope that each and every decent American comes to town hall meetings with a video camera and demands action,” she wrote.
Having seen his colleague Castle come under attack, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) is taking no chances.
“Before I got back to Michigan before the break, we’ll go through it, so that we’re versed in it,” Hoekstra said recently. “Just like anything else, if you see a hot issue ... it’s sort of like, ‘Let me go take a look at this and see what the status is.’”
Hoekstra believes there’s no “compelling case” questioning Obama’s origins. But after talking to Castle about his town hall, he knows that he’d better be ready with an answer.
The trick: What do you say?
Of the various approaches a put-on-the-spot pol can take, each carries its own risk of alienating constituents. Pick up a pitchfork in the cause of this conspiracy theory, and you risk damaging your reputation in the mainstream while aligning yourself with a movement some regard as having racist undertones.
Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), co-sponsor of legislation that would force candidates to show their birth certificates, was widely mocked after he told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that Obama is a U.S. citizen — “as far as I know.”
However, members who decide to challenge the conspiracy theory, as Castle did mildly, risk ticking off a shrill minority who can upend their events and then post the video on the Web.
And those who try to split the difference may find themselves getting doubly burned.
At a Wyoming town hall in April, birthers jumped on freshman Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis.
“I’m not questioning your concern,” Lummis told the crowd, according to the Wyoming Eagle Tribune. “I am questioning whether there is credible evidence.”
The congresswoman ended up asking for anyone who had “evidence” to send it to her.
At a walk-in meeting in Sen. Tom Coburn’s Washington office, birthers gave the Oklahoma Republican’s chief of staff nine pages of documentation in support of their claims. The group later billed the meeting a success on one of Taitz’s blogs.
But when asked about the meeting, Coburn spokesman Don Tatro said that the office was simply trying to be “polite” and that “it is possible to mistake politeness for agreement.”
According to his office, Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn has received 33 inquiries about Obama’s origins, with 10 coming in over the past week.
So far, Hoekstra hasn’t faced any such questions.
“When you’re in a state with 15.2 percent unemployment,” he said, “most people have other things on their mind than this.”
But as if to illustrate the touchiness of the subject, Hoekstra quickly added: “Not that this isn’t important.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe has also tried to find the elusive middle ground.
“They have a point,” he said of the birthers. “I don’t discourage it. ... But I’m going to pursue defeating [Obama] on things that I think are very destructive to America.”
Out-party politicians have long had to deal with conspiracy theorists on their side — the people who think that the Clintons killed Vince Foster or that the Bush administration helped orchestrate the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Twenty-five percent of my people believe the Pentagon and Rumsfeld were responsible for taking the twin towers down,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat who represents a conservative Republican district in Minnesota. “That’s why I don’t do town meetings.”
But the birther phenomenon may present a bigger challenge — a potent blend of race and politics, fueled by conservative TV and radio pundits, and played out in a day when all that stands between a town hall meeting and Web omnipresence is a $100 flip cam.
Republican pollster Whit Ayers says that a member confronted with birther questions should immediately pivot the conversation back to big issues.
“You simply indicate that in a country where our fiscal policy is driving us toward bankruptcy, where we are wrestling with major issues of health care reform and fighting two wars for our safety, you don’t have time to deal with wild conspiracy theories,” he says.
That’s the approach House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana takes.
“On that issue, I’m pretty distinctive that the president is from Hawaii,” he said. “I just don’t know where he’s coming from on health care.”
Such a response might satisfy many, or even most, but Taitz says that until Obama is removed from office, America’s other problems cannot be addressed. The fact that a few members of Congress have taken up her cause, with 10 Republicans signing onto Floria Republican Rep. Bill Posey’s legislation to amend the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, has only encouraged her to buckle down in the fight.
As Taitz sees it, Campbell, who represents her congressional district in Southern California, was moved to co-sponsor the “Birthers’ bill” for fear of people like her.
Campbell spokesperson Muffy Lewis flatly denied that being the case, saying the issue of Obama’s birth certificate is a low priority in the congressman’s district. Plus, Campbell has stressed that the bill would apply only to future candidates — and is really just about avoiding these kinds of controversies in the future.
“It really wasn’t as much about constituents as it was his own principles,” said Lewis. “He thought it was a common-sense bill. Castle had a major issue [in his district], but it hasn’t been much of an issue in ours.”
But Taitz said that lawmakers everywhere should be prepared to “resign or be removed” if they “do not have the guts to stand for the Constitution and this country.”
Asked whether Republican lawmakers should be “afraid” of the birthers, Taitz said: “I wouldn’t say the word ‘afraid.’ I think they should be willing to resign or be removed. That is what they should do. ... Resign if you do not have the guts to stand for the Constitution of this country.”
Taitz has made nine trips around the country to rally support for her cause. In March, she traveled to Washington to personally hand out packets of documents to senators in the Hart Senate Office Building. Additionally, she says she has sent documents by certified mail to each of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, arguing that Obama is “totally illegitimate to be president.”
While the movement could be “politically threatening for particular Republicans,” Taitz says that the GOP as a whole has a chance to gain from it if it takes the right course of action.