Campaigning in Michigan, the GOP nominee makes an ugly and politically ill-advised gesture toward the conspiracy theory surrounding the president's origins.
Updated 3:42 p.m.
Mitt Romney went there. Campaigning in Michigan on Friday, he made a joke about President Obama's birth certificate. Here's what he said:
"Now, I love being home in this place where Ann and I were raised, where both of us were born. Ann was born at Henry Ford Hospital, I was born at Harper Hospital. No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised."
As a literal statement, this isn't true. People have asked to see Romney's birth certificate, and his campaign released it, with little fanfare, earlier this year. As a "joke," it isn't very funny. And as a reference to the controversy-that-won't-die over the president's origins, it's a venture into very perilous territory for Romney.
The most troubling part of Romney's statement is the implication that Obama is somehow to blame for the birthers' conspiracy theorizing -- that there are some people you can look at and tell they were "born and raised" here, and others who make you wonder, for some reason.
This implication of a certain hazy foreignness about Obama isn't new for Romney, who frequently says the president doesn't "understand America." Romney's adviser John Sununu echoed that when he said last month that Obama needed to "learn how to be an American." Romney was asked about the insinuation in an interview with Parade magazine that went online Friday, and had this answer:
Governor Sununu was not suggesting he wasn't American, nor do I. I believe he's making us far more like Europe, with a larger, more dominant, more intrusive government. I believe if we keep going on that path, we will end up like Europe, with chronic high unemployment, no wage growth, and economic calamity at the doorstep. I think you have to return to celebrating success, encouraging entrepreneurship, and finding ways to get government out of the way.
Romney's campaign responded to queries about his remark by noting that he's repeatedly said he believes Obama was born in the U.S. But Democrats fired back with a reminder that Romney hasn't exactly distanced himself from figures like Donald Trump, who, even as Romney spoke, was emitting his latest birther-themed tweet.
I asked Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, about the comment, and he denied Romney was alluding to birtherism at all. "It's a distraction. It's a nothing issue," he said of the conspiracy theories, which he noted he's always strongly refuted. Romney, he said, "was referring to the fact that he was born in Michigan to make the point, 'I'm a Michigander' to the people of Michigan."
Is Romney really a birther, deep down? Surely not. But by gesturing toward this sort of unsavory stuff, he risks aligning himself with the most rabid and unreasonable elements of his party's base at a time, going into the convention, when he most needs to situate himself in the mainstream. In this sense, the birther foray is similar to the Todd Akin controversy: Republicans ran screaming from Akin's "legitimate rape" comments not just because they were themselves shocking and medically dubious, but because they were a reminder that many in the GOP, including Akin and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, believe women who are pregnant as a result of rape should not be allowed to get abortions -- a view that just 20 percent of Americans share, according to Gallup. If Romney wants to convince moderate general-election voters he's not a creature of the GOP fringe, this is not the way to do it.