As soon as President Obama endorsed the Muslim community's right to build an Islamic Cultural Center two blocks from Ground Zero, the political speculation mill started churning. Republican operatives crowed about how Obama was taking a position that only a minority of Americans hold. Others shook their heads in disbelief at how Obama apparently just doesn't understand the real Americans in the Heartland who know better than New Yorkers what should be built in New York. Democrats murmured to each other that this would cost them congressional seats this Fall.
A week later, as the political fallout from the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy reveals itself, it looks as if everyone may have overreacted. It is not exactly true that Obama took an unpopular position, nor that he partially retracted it the next day, when he said that he is not taking a position of the wisdom of the project. While only a minority of Americans think the Park51 plan is a good idea, they are evenly split as to whether its developers have the right to build it. So when Obama said that he supports the right to build the Cordoba House, but clarified later that he did not say that he supports the choice to build it, he was not expressing views any more contradictory than those of a significant number of Americans. And in expressing his support for the right to build religious structures anywhere that they meet local land-use regulations, in accordance with the First Amendment, he was not expressing an especially unpopular position.
Nor is it clear that the average swing voter, beset by economic insecurity in a nation at war, is as obsessed with this as the pundetariat. As Greg Sargent noted last week, the polls suggest that this is not the issue outside the Beltway that Charles Krauthammer would lead you to believe. When Gallup asked poll respondents what they thought of Obama's comments, "while more disapprove than approve, a huge chunk -- 41 percent -- didn't know enough to form an opinion." And the 34 percent who disapprove are heavily concentrated among Republicans. But they also are more likely to strong disapprove than supporters are to strongly approve. Rasmussen Reports found that only 22 percent of Americans say they are following the "mosque" story "very closely."
So there may be political rewards for some Republicans who focus on the "mosque." Given the intensity of opposition among Republicans, and the lack of interest among independents, the opportunity is to distinguish oneself in a Republican primary, and perhaps for Republican nominees to excite their base in Novembers. Case in point: as the New York Times reports, New York Republican gubernatorial aspirant Rick Lazio has injected some life into his flagging campaign by cutting commercials about the "mosque."
According to the Times: "As the Republican primary for the governor’s race approaches, Mr. Lazio is making his vigorous opposition to the project a centerpiece of his candidacy, assailing it on the campaign trail, testifying against it at public hearings, denouncing it in television commercials and even creating an online petition demanding an investigation into the center and its organizers." Of course, when New York faces a gridlocked, incompetent and corruption-riddled state legislature that can barely bring itself to address New York's massive projected budget deficits, and the governor, whoever it is, has no power to prevent the project's completion, this may seem an odd campaign issue. But it is making people remember that Rick Lazio exists, which they would otherwisebe liable to forget. Could this help Lazio reduce the 30 point gap between him and likely Democratic nominee Attorney General Andrew Cuomo? Maybe, but there's no way that in a Democratic state it will be enough to overcome Cuomo's advantages in fundraising, name recognition and organization. Nor is it clear that, beyond getting himself on Meeting the Press, Lazio is actually moving many votes. “I don’t think it’s a ticket to Albany in November,” Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which has polled New Yorkers on the issue, tells the Times.
Republican candidates for the presidency in 2012 may also look to drive up their support, or at least get some free publicity, in the primary by attacking the "mosque." Indeed, the intensity on the Republican side is so strong that conservative blogger Robert Stacy McCain thinks Newt Gingrich eradicated his chances of being the GOP nominee by backing out of speaking at this weekend's anti-"mosque" rally in New York. McCain writes:
In the space of five days, Gingrich has gone from comparing the mosque to a Nazi sign at the Holocaust Museum to quitting a protest against it.
Make an enemy of Pamela Geller? Be my guest, Newt. Nice presidential campaign you had there.
Geller is a conservative blogger who has been fanning the flames of the "mosque" controversy. I strongly suspect that, should Gingrich run, this will prove far from a fatal misstep on his part. One would think that the party of moral values would have a bigger problem with Gingrich's serial infidelities. But, while McCain is almost certainly vastly over-stating the importance of this particular story, it does say something about the potential power of anti-Islamic politicking in the Republican primaries that any amibiguity in Gingrich's otherwise stellar anti-mosque armor could be, even theoretically, so damaging to him.