Why Is There A Resurgence of Congressional Birtherism?

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In the last month, two representatives have questioned Obama's birth certificate. Expect more of the same until the election.

There is no serious debate over whether Barack Obama is an American citizen. He is.

Of course, that hasn't stopped people from saying otherwise. For example, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Republican representing Missouri's 4th district. Following the standard template for these things, she was asked by a constituent at a town hall about the president's birth certificate. And following the template, she failed to denounce or even disagree with this disproven idea:

I don't know, I haven't seen it. I'm just at the same place you are on that. You read this, you read that. But I don't understand why he didn't show that right away. I mean, if someone asked for my birth certificate, I'd get my baby book and hand it out and say 'Here it is,' so I don't know .... I have doubts that it is really his real birth certificate, and I think a lot of Americans do, but they claim it is, so we are just going to go with that.

A spokesman clarified her comments to Politico today, but the explanation neither addressed her statement nor her actual views; after all, she repeated the statements to a reporter immediately following the original meeting.

Crazy, right? But not isolated. In March, Rep. Cliff Stearns -- the man whose questions about Planned Parenthood led to the Susan G. Komen Foundation's decision to cut off funding for the organization -- made similar comments. "All I can tell you is that the general consensus is that he has produced a birth certificate," he said. "The question is, is it legitimate? That's where we stand now." When I contacted Stearns spokesman Paul Flusche to ask about it, his response was, "This office won't comment on every video posted by liberal groups" -- as though the video had somehow been conjured without Stearns' involvement.

I'm on the record as objecting to polls about Obama's (or really anyone's) religion or place of birth because they reinforce a false impression. There are facts here; and opinion is really irrelevant. But it's a different situation with elected officials, who have a certain responsibility to the truth. There's no acceptable excuse for Stearns or Hartzler. Stearns is locked in a tight primary (his opponent even accused him of trying to bribe him out of the race, which Stearns denies), so perhaps it's a panicked pander. Hartzler, on the other hand, appears to be in a safe GOP district: Although she unseated Democrat Ike Skelton two years ago, the district is quite red and he was something of a vestigial presence.

If members of Congress truly believe that the president isn't an American citizen, then they surely have the obligation to single-mindedly focus on proving that and ejecting him from office. But since they almost certainly don't believe it and just as certainly can't prove it (since it's false), they instead have an obligation to speak out against birtherism. Unfortunately, as members of Congress spend more time mixing with constituents as they campaign, we're only likely to hear more incidents along these lines.

H/t Think Progress.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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