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Romney's 'birther' line is no joke

By Donna Brazile, CNN Contributor
updated 9:11 PM EDT, Mon August 27, 2012
Mitt Romney, his wife Ann, and his running mate Paul Ryan, campaign together Friday in Commerce, Michigan.
Mitt Romney, his wife Ann, and his running mate Paul Ryan, campaign together Friday in Commerce, Michigan.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Donna Brazile: Mitt Romney's birth certificate "joke" wasn't innocuous
  • She says it's part of a campaign that uses coded messages to devalue the president
  • Brazile: Romney wrongly accused Obama of weakening welfare reform
  • She says Romney is seeking to distract attention from questions he won't answer

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking with Grease." She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.

(CNN) -- "No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that I was born and raised."

With that comment to a crowd in Michigan, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney officially embraced the "birther" movement and touched off a firestorm of protest across the airwaves and internet.

Of course, those protesting didn't include his live audience or the extremists on the right. Nor, given Romney's embrace of Donald Trump, should we be surprised by this joke-that's-not-a-joke. Ari Melber of The Nation put it succinctly: "Jokes can be more revealing than talking points."

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

But what, exactly, did Romney reveal with this pre-meditated "offhand" remark? That he's courting the radical right? He already chose Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential nominee. That he's pandering to the right-wing noise machine and the corporate special interest propaganda machine? We already know that because he appears on media friendly to the right but limits the number and kind of questions reporters can ask him, and then responds with dodging answers.

Opinion: Election a stark choice on America's future

That he's following the Bush-Cheney-Rove "keep it vague, keep them afraid" playbook? Commentators and analysts have been pointing this out since Romney entered the campaign.

Romney -- hiding behind the plausible deniability that it was just a joke, with a wink and a nod to the extremists in his base -- tried to divert attention from the ABC's haunting his campaign: Akin, Bain, "Corporations are people." His comment has the added benefit of satisfying his most fervent supporters and those anonymous supporters bankrolling one of the most misleading advertising campaigns, a blitzkrieg that strikes just the right partisan undertones.

The real story is that there's nothing unusual about the remark. It's no more in the gutter than a lot of things that have been said about President Barack Obama since coming into office. It's just one more insinuation designed to distract us from the most disconcerting weaknesses of Romney's candidacy -- that he fails to offer details about his policy proposals and stubbornly refuses to disclose more than two years of tax returns.

But it is sad and revealing, nevertheless. It is sad that a campaign stretch that began with his asking Obama to stop apologizing for America (something fact checkers noted the president never did) and roundly debunked welfare attack ad ended with a xenophobic and roundly debunked birther reference. And it reveals not just moral turpitude, but moral vacuity.

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Busting the Obama 'birther' conspiracy

His birth certificate dog-whistles are not just desperate, they are deliberate. Romney is campaigning as if he feels he is entitled to the White House -- that, like a feudal lord or European aristocrat, he does not have to answer questions, he does not have to be forthright, he does not have to be honest.

It also reveals, as so much before it has done, that he believes the American people are too ignorant, too indifferent, too lazy, too afraid to bother and that we can be fooled. He also knows that the American press will, after huffing and puffing, give him a free pass on this one, too.

How we respond to Romney's remark will reveal a lot about us, as well. Will we get what he's doing? Will we reject the noxious condescension and the patronizing? Will we demand an open and honest accounting of his business dealings? If he wants to be in charge of our business, we should see how he's run his.

Isaac could hinder GOP chance to define Romney at convention

The media, too, will reveal a lot about itself by its response. Outrage, shock, tongue-clicking - these are superficial and useless. Allowing Romney to backpedal -- "it's only a joke" -- misses the point. The media needs to press for policy specifics and contrast claims with facts.

As I said, we shouldn't be surprised by Romney's remark. Trying to pretend that somehow Obama is not an American-born leader, or questioning his patrioism, or his values by using the Big Lie often speaks in code. But let's decode some of the implications:

-- Show us your birth certificate, but I won't show you my tax returns.

-- You need to prove your identity to vote, but my super PAC allies don't need to identify their donors.

-- I'll lie about Obama's plans, but won't explain my own.

-- I'll blame Obama for the problems he didn't cause, and take credit for his solutions that work.

Romney's birther remark was less a surprise than a confirmation that his moral compass is off center.

Mr. Romney, America's not an aristocracy. It's not where you were born -- in a cabin or a mansion -- or how you were raised -- in poverty by a single parent or with money and privilege -- that matters.

It matters where you go and what you do. It's who you help, what you're willing to sacrifice, and how honest you are.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donna Brazile.

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