By all accounts, President Obama was well aware of the political firestorm that would follow his vocal support for the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero. But his instincts as a former constitutional law professor kicked in, and his desire to engage the country in a teachable moment surpassed his fear that doing so would put him on the wrong side of public opinion on yet another divisive issue.
When the president decided to nationalize the mosque debate, he empowered his political opponents, handing a cudgel not only to the Republicans up on the Hill but also to the Republican foes he will face in 2012.
Leading the charge have been former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, whose statements of condemnation have become controversial in their own right.
During an appearance on Fox News, Gingrich blasted the decision to put up the mosque only blocks away from Ground Zero, categorizing it as the hypothetical equivalent of Nazis “putting up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington” or the Japanese putting up a “site next to Pearl Harbor.”
Palin rattled the social networking masses by challenging Obama directly on Facebook, “Mr. President, should they or should they not build a mosque steps away from where radical Islamists killed 3,000 people?” Adding this jab, “And no, this is not above your pay grade.”
Even the affable and mild-mannered tandem of Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty joined the fray. Huckabee called on Muslims to serve the public interest by “exercising the responsible judgment to not build it.” Pawlenty noted that it was “inappropriate” to build the mosque, adding, “From a patriotic standpoint, it’s hallowed ground, it’s sacred ground, and we should respect that.”
Noticeably absent from the chest thumping over the mosque issue was Mitt Romney. While others from the GOP poured on and made headlines, Romney sat on the sidelines for weeks, an exercise in calculated restraint that has become his trademark since Obama took office. And when he finally did weigh in, it came through a spokesman, who issued a statement avoiding the more caustic and confrontational tone other 2012 contenders had taken.
As the debate over the mosque raged on, dominating chatter across the blogosphere and countless cable news cycles, Romney redirected his energy and gravitas towards the issue that is capturing the thoughts and concerns of the overwhelming majority of Americans: the economy. Penning an op-ed in the Boston Globe last week, Romney challenged the Obama administration’s economic policies, which he criticized for “deepen[ing] and lengthen[ing] the downturn and for enacting measures that are “anti-investment, anti-jobs, and anti-growth.”
Some of the more controversial rhetoric used by some leading GOPers surrounding the mosque controversy has lent an unintentional assist to Romney’s quest to present himself as the Republican with the most stature, a man with presidential-like temperament.
Romney’s delayed and indirect response permitted him to stay focused on the issue in which he cares most about, and the issue in which he carries the most credibility, the economy. But it has also afforded him the opportunity to stay away from the kind of hot-button cultural issues that helped derail his candidacy last time around. Instead, he has remained disciplined, staying on a message that consists of blasting the Obama administration’s attempts to revive the economy while offering up a set of his own free-market-oriented proposals. Quietly, Romney is establishing himself as the GOP’s leading man on economic issues. A potentially powerful platform to run on in 2012, particularly if the economy maintains the kind of political potency then that it does now.
But his avoidance of the debate surrounding the “Ground Zero Mosque” is also a firm reminder that the Mitt Romney of 2010 is distinctly different from the Mitt Romney of 2006 and 2007, and that 2012 will be nothing like 2008, when he was essentially forced to morph into a fire-breathing conservative on every issue the base of the GOP cared about. He even said as much during an April interview with Newsweek, when he was asked what he would have done differently during his presidential campaign:
“I wish I had been more effective in being able to communicate the central rationale of my campaign, which is strengthening the economy, getting better jobs, raising incomes…Instead, as a candidate I spent a good deal of time answering questions about social issues.”
With poll after poll showing majority disapproval of the president’s handling of the economy and his policies to heal it, it’s becoming increasingly likely that Romney will have the chance to run the kind of presidential campaign that he knows he should have run before.
Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate, who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.