A Further Perspective

Birtherdämmerung

The tragic twilight of an anti-Obama conspiracy theory.

By 4.28.11

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Scarcely had the White House released President Obama's birth certificate than the "Birther" skeptics issued statements expressing their continued doubts about other aspects of Obama's biography. One oft-heard refrain was that the president had waited too long to release the document. Others moved on to demanding to see Obama's academic transcripts. Donald Trump congratulated himself on having pressured the White House into finally putting an end to many months of mystery.

What will be the political impact of this? In the long term, likely none at all. Americans who don't like Obama will continue not to like him. The president gave a sanctimonious press conference lecture -- the nation was being "distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers," he said -- but Obama's opponents have long since ceded his superlative gifts at delivering sanctimonious lectures. Where he fails is in delivering effective policies to address our nation's manifold problems. By the time the 2012 election arrives, the Birther controversy will be long forgotten, while Obama's failed policies will (or at least should be) front and center of the campaign debate.

Many people on the Left, and even certain Republicans (e.g., David Frum), have treated Birtherism as a proxy for latent racism. And one may grant that this is to some extent true, without granting either of the implicit premises of such claims: (a) that all opposition to Obama is essentially racist; or (b) that this reveals the fundamentally racist nature of the Republican Party. Both leftists and embarrassed GOP elitists are guilty of conflating categories in ways that fit their own preconceived notions of the political landscape. However, there are racists who aren't Birthers, and racists who aren't Republicans; most Republicans are not racists and never doubted that Obama was born in Hawaii. (Not to encourage anyone to go off on another paranoid tangent, but some people have noticed that Donald Trump has given a good bit of money to Democrats over the years, and therefore wonder if Trump could be some sort of Democratic mole. Conspiracy theories are everywhere nowadays.)

Leaving aside irrelevant and implausible accusations of racism -- which are also everywhere nowadays -- the whole Birther phenomenon reminded me of certain conspiracy theories that swirled around Bill Clinton during his first term in the White House. The real tragedy of conspiracy-theory politics is that it is a waste of time, energy and resources. Too much effort was spent chasing phantom rumors  back in the 1990s, when there were those who alleged that Clinton's career as governor of Arkansas rivaled the tenure of John Gotti in its bloody criminality.

Of course, as it turned out, there was indeed a conspiracy to hide Bill Clinton's womanizing ways, a conspiracy that followed the former Arkansas governor into the White House in the form of a federal civil-rights lawsuit charging him with the sexual harassment of former state employee Paula Jones. The president perjured himself, and arguably conspired to obstruct justice and suborn perjury from Monica Lewinsky -- and those startling revelations of high crimes and misdemeanors had nothing to do with kooky crackpot theories about people being killed because "they knew too much." (What did Kathleen Willey's cat know, and when did he know it?)

Allegations of shady wrongdoing in the past, especially in the distant past, rarely prove decisive in politics. Candidates for office are sometimes forced to drop out of a campaign by the exposure of previously unknown malfeasance. However, once a person is elected to high public office, he is unlikely to be defeated for re-election due to the belated discovery of something he did wrong before he was first elected. Once they're elected, officials are judged by their performance in office. While Bill Clinton's "performance" was in many ways disgraceful and indeed criminal, even his impeachment by the House of Representatives -- and the undeniable DNA evidence of his Oval Office trysts -- proved insufficient to destroy him altogether.

No serious person could ever have imagined that Obama's birth certificate would be the silver bullet that would lead to his political defeat. And those who promoted "Birtherism" as a means of beating Obama have, at best, succeeded in compelling the White House to prove a fact that was never really in doubt. This is a minor humiliation to Team Obama, even if it leaves the Birthers with egg on their faces. Yet it is difficult to see how this denouement could affect the political battle going forward.

Having concluded the Wagnerian saga of Obama's Hawaiian origins, his opponents are now left to pursue the more mundane mission of convincing a majority of their fellow Americans that the president's policies are harmful and destructive. That's neither a conspiracy nor a theory, but a fact.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.