This was not the issue the Democrats wanted to be talking about.
The Party of Obama is still in a tough position heading into the fall midterm elections, as it fights to hold onto the House and Senate. But as the President travels the country campaigning for candidates, he is trying to make the case that the economic woes are really the fault of his predecessor and those obstructionists in Congress. Republicans want to destroy Social Security, Obama and the Democrats say. They've been taken over by the Tea Party ... They're extremists ... The Party of No!
Some Democrats thought they were regaining the upper hand. Then came the issue of the proposed Islamic Center that would be built in lower Manhattan, two blocks from Ground Zero.
Last Friday, as NPR's Liz Halloran pointed out in her Web piece yesterday, President Obama said that "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country":
And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the founders must endure.
The Washington Post editorially called it a "spirited affirmation of freedom of religion."
But conservatives erupted, wondering out loud whether Obama understood the sensitivities about the events of Sept. 11th. "This is a basic issue of respect for a tragic moment in our history," railed House GOP Leader John Boehner. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said the president "caved in to political correctness." References to Barack Hussein Obama were all over the Internets. Sarah Palin was so incensed that she Tweeted about it.
The next morning, in Panama City, Fla., Obama took another swipe at the issue. But this time, in referring to his Friday remarks, he added, "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about."
That threw everybody out of whack. Post columnist Richard Cohen, under the header "Moral Midgetry," wrote that after his Friday speech, Obama "went to bed a panicked man and reached, trembling, some hours later, for a political morning-after pill to take back some of what he had said."
But it also unleashed a torrent of criticism from the right. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington" — basically equating Muslims with Nazis. A slew of Republican candidates have challenged their Democratic opponents to take a stand on the issue (see Carl Hulse's piece on this in Tuesday's New York Times).
Rick Scott, seeking the GOP nomination for governor of Florida, went on the air with a commercial blasting "Muslim fanatics."
And it has left Democrats scratching their heads wondering why they now have to deal with the issue. Some have run for cover, some have given tepid endorsements, some have kept their distance from their president.
The most prominent of the latter group is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in a tough re-election battle in Nevada. His GOP opponent, Sharron Angle, demanded to know where he stood. The result? Reid broke with the president, with his spokesman saying the senator "thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else."
We use the term "throwing (someone) under the bus" countless times during an election season, but this was a perfect example of the majority leader doing it to his president. And while the Obama administration publicly seems to understand Reid's position — he's a "fiercely independent individual," White House spokesman Bill Burton said Tuesday, and that's "one of his strengths as a leader" — others took a much harsher view of Reid's stand, tough race or not.
The Post's Greg Sargent wrote, "Reid's ham-handed statement makes the Democrats look weak, unorganized and unwilling to stand up for principles they plainly believe in."
Brian Beutler, blogging at Talking Points Memo, said Reid's opposition to the mosque has "surprised" Democrats and "left them vulnerable."
Amy Sullivan, blogging at Time's Swampland, offered this:
Reid's "you have the right; you just shouldn't do it" position is perfectly in line with public opinion on the mosque issue. But it's public opinion that has been shaped by round-the-clock arguments on Fox News conflating the Muslim backers of Cordoba House with the September 11 attackers, making the building of the center a vital battle in some war between civilizations. ... Harry Reid was in a position to challenge these arguments and help build a new case for the appropriateness of Cordoba House [site of the proposed Islamic center]. He chose instead to yield to them.
Sumbul Ali-Karamali, blogging at the Huffington Post, wrote Reid "has capitulated to politicized fear-mongering rhetoric."
And many of those Democrats who had been having a fun time demanding that Republicans agree with or refudiate some of the more controversial statements GOP candidates have been making, became silent. Julie Kirtz, blogging on the Fox News site, taunted the "usually hyper-talkative" Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) over why he hasn't "issued a firm statement on the controversy, despite weeks of pushing by reporters."
And this just in: Former Vermont Gov. and ex-DNC chair Howard Dean agrees with Reid. Politico's Maggie Haberman reports that Dean "says that he hopes there's a 'compromise' and that it's 'a real affront to people who lost their lives.' He adds, 'A good reasonable compromise could be worked out,' and 'another site would be a better idea.'"
The Republican response to the mosque/Islamic center controversy is a far cry from what President Bush used to talk about following the events of 9/11; he argued that there was Islam and there were religious fanatics who flew planes into buildings, and there was a fundamental difference between the two. NPR's Don Gonyea has a piece on the GOP and the mosque that will air on tomorrow's Morning Edition.
But a lot can be said about the Democrats' response as well.