Mitt Romney, birther abettor

He refuses to criticize Donald Trump’s lunacy. Doesn’t he see the opportunity he’s wasting here?

Published May 29, 2012 11:23AM (EDT)

When the New York Times reported recently that a pro-Mitt Romney super PAC might launch an ad campaign playing up President Obama’s link to Jeremiah Wright, Romney didn’t wait long to disavow it.

"I repudiate the effort by that PAC to promote an ad strategy of the nature they've described," he said.

Not long after that, Donald Trump used an interview to restate his long, long-ago debunked claim that Obama was born in Kenya.

“That’s what he told the literary agent,” he told the Daily Beast. “That’s the way life works… He didn’t know he was running for president, so he told the truth. The literary agent wrote down what he said… He said he was born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia… Now they’re saying it was a mistake. Just like his Kenyan grandmother said he was born in Kenya, and she pointed down the road to the hospital, and after people started screaming at her she said, ‘Oh, I mean Hawaii.’ Give me a break.”

Trump is a prominent Romney supporter and is scheduled to appear with the candidate in Las Vegas today. But when reporters on Romney’s campaign plane offered Romney the chance last night to distance himself from Trump’s lunacy, he demurred.

“You know,” he said, “I don't agree with all the people who support me, and my guess is they don't all agree with everything I believe in. But I need to get 50.1 percent or more, and I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people."

It’s a weak excuse, obviously, since the same concern didn’t stop him from lashing out at the proposed Wright ad. The question is why Romney is so nervous about raining on Trump’s birther parade.

There are two basic theories here, and they probably overlap somewhat. One has to do with Romney’s relationship with the Republican Party base, where birther sentiment and sympathy for Trump can both be found in high concentration. It may be that Romney has decided that confronting those feelings could further arouse suspicions among conservatives that he’s a secret moderate who will sell them out as president.

The other theory has to do with Trump and his massive media profile. When he sounds off on current events, his reach extends far beyond the world of cable news and political blogs. He’s a genuine national celebrity, one who delights in using his platform to abuse anyone who’s crossed him personally.

Right now, Trump’s ire is focused on Obama, but he’s shown that he’s ready to open fire on Republicans who challenge his birtherism. Just look at his war of words with George Will that’s now playing out. Maybe Romney figures it’s easier to bite his tongue and take some heat from the media than to endure six months of Trump calling him names on every television program in America.

Either way, the Romney camp is looking at this situation too narrowly.

Let’s say that Romney were to come out and make a clear and emphatic break with Trump – calling birtherism invalid, stating that it has no role in the campaign, and reiterating his intent to wage a campaign about the issues (and, of course, Obama’s “failed leadership”). Realistically, what would happen?

Well, it would be a huge story, of course, with Trump probably throwing a hissy-fit. But so what? Republican leaders would stand with Romney, and the voices decrying him (besides Trump’s) would be relegated to the fringes. Maybe some rank-and-file conservatives would turn on Romney because of it, but ultimately it’s Obama-phobia that animates the GOP base. Meanwhile, the media would offer Romney glowing coverage for standing up to Trump, who – by the way – isn’t actually that popular with the masses. For once, Romney would come across as strong and principled. The image boost with swing voters would probably be significant, dwarfing whatever intraparty damage he’d suffer.

It was almost exactly 20 years ago that Bill Clinton staged his “Sister Souljah moment,” using a speech at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to decry a black rapper who had been quoted in the wake of the L.A. riots as saying that blacks had a reason to kill whites. This supposedly was a key part of Clinton’s successful bid to sell himself as a new Democrat, one who was unbeholden to and unafraid of his party’s base.

Trump’s bloviating is an opportunity for Romney to do the same thing – but he and his campaign are apparently blind to it.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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