Why Won't Mitt Romney Disavow Birther Donald Trump?

The Obama campaign says John McCain would have repudiated the mogul. But that might be precisely why Romney won't.

Slipping in the polls and struggling to find its footing, the Obama campaign seems to think it has found the perfect foil to help them out: Donald Trump, the bizarrely bouffanted businessman. As Trump prepared to host a fundraiser for Romney in Las Vegas Tuesday, he renewed his ridiculous birther rhetoric. Last week, he told Lloyd Grove, "He didn't know he was running for president, so he told the truth. The literary agent wrote down what he said... He said he was born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia... Now they're saying it was a mistake."

Needless to say, there is incontrovertible proof that Obama was born in Hawaii. Trump's accusations are false, self-serving, and indefensible. The question is, why hasn't Mitt Romney condemned Trump's comments and distanced himself from them?

The Romney campaign has approvingly cited comments made by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in the Hilary Rosen flap that a candidate can't be held responsible for everything his supporters say. "I can't speak for Donald Trump, Gloria, but I can tell you that Mitt Romney accepts that President Obama was born in the United States," senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said on Friday. (The Rosen comparison is fairly obviously disingenuous: While Rosen is an Obama supporter, she was not a high-profile endorser; she was not hosting fundraisers for the president; and her comments, while widely condemned, were contestable opinions but did not involve the intentional dissemination of outright falsehoods.)

The Obama campaign is putting further pressure on Romney with the video above, released Tuesday, which contrasts him with John McCain, who in 2008 repeatedly denounced personal attacks against candidate Obama. The comparison with McCain may be instructive, but not for the reasons the Obama campaign intends. Yes, the Arizona senator would have denounced the attack. But as Politico reported, the Romney team is working to make sure it doesn't suffer the fate of McCain's campaign, adopting the following mantra: "Whatever McCain did, do the opposite."

Here's how that might play out in this case. Strategists, elites, and cable news types disdain birtherism (for good reason!). And Romney himself has never embraced it. But voters? Although there has thankfully been less polling on the topic since the release of the birth certificate, birther beliefs appear to have remained resilient, barely ticking down in a January poll, for example. Folks who were willing to indulge silly ideas before remain willing to do so now. Without a groundswell of disapproval from Republican and independent voters, why should Romney bother to disavow Trump? McCain would have made the condemnation; the media would have oohed and aahed; and voters would still have voted for Obama. The Donald himself made this argument Tuesday, tweeting, "[Obama] keeps using @SenJohnMcCain as an example, however, @SenJohnMcCain lost the election. Don't let it happen again." For once, the man has a point.

Trump bashers of all political stripes have often reacted incredulously to Romney's intimacy with the mogul, even outside the context of birtherism. After all, is there a single undecided or Obama-leaning voter who will change his or her vote to Romney because an outlandish television celebrity tells them to? Surely not -- but the same logic applies here. If voters are so inclined to disregard Trump, there's no downside: his support won't turn them off Romney, either. On the other side of the balance sheet, the cash that Romney collects at the Vegas fundraiser is perfectly legal tender that can feed the campaign coffers.

Romney's position still isn't quite coherent. For example, as Andrew Kaczynski points out, it doesn't make much sense that Romney leapt to condemn an independent plan to link Obama to Jeremiah Wright -- an attack that is factually defensible, if politically dangerous -- but is willing to indulge birtherism, a belief that is factually and morally indefensible.

All that said, will Romney be able to maintain his po-faced insistence that he is not his fundraiser's keeper? Trump, who is incapable of restraining himself when there's a chance for self-promotion, was doubling (and tripling and quadrupling) down on his statements Tuesday. Perhaps he will eventually go too far -- even for Romney.

Presented by

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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