Will the Birthers Help or Hurt Obama?

In politics, dogs that don't bark make the loudest noise.

I was reminded of that on Monday at the White House as I listened to Robert Gibbs, the presidential press secretary. Even discounting for his ever-present mordant calm, Gibbs was noticeably laid back when asked about the blogospherical hysteria over the question of whether President Obama is a U.S. citizen.

More in sorrow than in anger, he lamented the need to discuss the topic—and then went on to discuss the topic. Rather than seem offended on behalf of the president—the first thing a press secretary learns to do—he seemed more philosophical, almost blasé about it all. It's a free country, whaddya gonna do?

"I almost hate to indulge in such an august setting as the White House briefing room," he said, "discussing the made-up fictional nonsense of whether the president was born in this country."

Key word: almost.

Fact, is, White House wise guys seem to think there is political profit to be reaped in encouraging—or at least putting the spotlight on—the anti-everything fundamentalists and public paranoids who are emerging at a time when the legitimate conservative movement and the Republican Party with it are weak.

When the water in the river is low, the rocks in the riverbed lie exposed. So it is with the party and the movement of that gave us Bill Buckley and Ronald Reagan and other worthies of the right. White House officials know that, and don't mind if the wild and utterly unsubstantiated speculation about Obama's provenance overwhelms the grassroots GOP senators and House members when they return home for the August recess.

Obama's aides were only too happy to point to the words of Sen. James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, who seemed to validate the curiosity about the theories of the "Birthers." "They have a point," he said. "I don't discourage it." One of the White House types was only too happy to point out that Inhofe is also a guy who refers to global warming as a global "hoax."

The theory: if Obama can convince independent voters that Inhofe is the sum and substance of the modern GOP, then the president might even be able to sell his health-care bill as real "reform."

There are just enough loose bureaucratic threads in the Obama nativity scene to give the Birthers something to talk about. Even though he possesses (and independent witnesses have seen) a valid birth certificate from the state of Hawaii (issued in 2007), the original document is either lost or unavailable, perhaps due to the conversion of such records to electronic form in 2001. Whatever the reason, it doesn't matter legally, since the existing document is valid and several local officials in Hawaii have vouched for its sufficiency.

Sensing an opening, Democrats in the House (who should be worrying about more important things) offered a resolution congratulating Hawaii on the 50th anniversary of statehood—and also praising the Aloha State as the place where "the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, was born." The idea was to force the Birthers in Congress—there are at least nine of them—to vote against the resolution and identify themselves. It's sort of clever in a sort of high-schoolish way. In the end, none of the Birthers objected to the unanimous approval of the resolution.

But Democrats in and out of the White House run the risk of being too cute by half. The people at the heart of the Birther movement are part of a deep disruptive tradition in American politics. At least some of them are beyond—way beyond—the quaint, even laudable libertarians with roots in frontier times. I met them in the mid-1970s when I was covering the arrival of court-ordered busing to integrate the suburban schools of Louisville, Ky. They believe the federal government is an illegitimate conspiracy to "take up the guns," to tax income that should be beyond reach, to open the borders to illegal immigrants, to—and this is an old notion that still has resonance—"mix the races."

Barack Obama, in ways he and his supporters cannot know or even dare to guess at, embodies all of these "evils" in the eyes of the radical rejectionists. It is not a sentiment to be laughed at, or used for short-term gain.