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From 'No, Ma'am' to 'No Comment' : How the GOP Has Shifted on Obama Fears

Seven years ago, Republicans distanced themselves from the most controversial comments about Obama. Not so now.
The Daily Beast's 2nd Annual Hero Summit
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 10: John McCain speaks during The Daily Beast's 2nd Annual Hero Summit at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on October 10, 2013 in Washington, DC. Kris Connor / Getty Images

Since 2008, the issues of race, religion, and “otherness” have been constant storylines about Barack Obama, first as a candidate and then as a two-term president. But there’s one big difference between 2008 and the latest firestorm over Rudy Giuliani saying, among other things, that Obama doesn’t love his country: Seven years ago, Republican presidential candidates were either condemning or distancing themselves from controversial comments about Obama. Now? They’re embracing them or simply shrugging their shoulders. Here was John McCain at an event in Oct. 2008: "I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.” When another attendee at that town hall referred to Obama as an “Arab,” McCain responded, "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about.”

Obama -- not the Clintons -- continues to be the rallying-cry focus for Republicans

Compare those responses with what likely 2016 candidate Scott Walker said about Giuliani’s remarks (Walker was present at the same event on Wednesday): “Yeah, I mean, the mayor can speak for himself. I'm not going to comment on whether -- what the president thinks or not. He can speak for himself as well. I'll tell you, I love America,” he told CNBC yesterday. Hours later, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal issued a statement appearing to support Giuliani’s comments. The statement was entitled: “Gov. Jindal Refuses to Condemn Mayor Giuliani.” What’s also striking to us is how the lame-duck Obama continues to be the GOP’s biggest rallying cry. After the midterms, we assumed that the party’s focus and energies would be devoted to the Clintons. And to be sure, the RNC and GOP oppo groups have devoted more of their time and resources to the Clintons. But for other Republicans and conservatives -- the 2016ers, the grassroots, media outlets -- the focus continues to be on Obama.

Giuliani officially enters Donald Trump territory

As for Giuliani himself, it’s time to say that he’s officially entered Donald Trump territory. In addition to saying on Wednesday that he doesn’t believe that Obama loves his country, he told the New York Times yesterday: “Some people thought it was racist — I thought that was a joke, since he was brought up by a white mother, a white grandfather, went to white schools, and most of this he learned from white people,” he said. “This isn’t racism. This is socialism or possibly anti-colonialism.” (Channeling convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza?) Speaking of Trump, the conservative real-estate mogul announced via Twitter that he met with Scott Walker yesterday. “Gov. Scott Walker just left my office--we had a really wonderful talk. Very interesting!” he tweeted.

If the White House doesn’t want to give ISIS legitimacy, why did it name it in the war resolution?

Of course, the origin of Giuliani’s comments came amid the semantics debate over whether Obama should refer to groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda as “Islamic extremist” groups (as his critics want him to do) or as simply “extremists” (as the president continues to do). Yet when the White House maintains that it doesn’t want to give ISIS legitimacy by referring to the group as “Islamic extremists,” it’s important to point out that it has already given the group legitimacy by NAMING it in the administration’s war resolution. Look, we entirely understand Obama’s reluctance in singling out Islam: 99.9% of Muslims aren’t signing up at ISIS recruiting centers. But as we wrote yesterday, this Great Naming Debate is ignoring the two big stories here: 1) Saudi Arabia’s role in funding these types of groups (something we didn’t hear from leaders after the recent death of Saudi Arabia’s king), and 2) Western Europe’s practice of ghettoizing their Muslim communities. As what usually happens in America politics, silly debates obscure the real pressing problems.

Don’t miss Bill Kristol in the Weekly Standard

Kristol: “It’s of course very early in the 2016 cycle. But it’s never too early for some healthy alarm. Are we the only ones who are struck that many of the leading Republican candidates, whether moderate or conservative, seem to be planning stale and tired campaigns? Hillary will herself, it’s safe to predict, run a stale campaign with tired themes. But the polls suggest she would prevail in a conventional matchup of boring campaigns. We’re all free to ignore the fire bell in the night, and hope for the best. But it would be a shame to have to explain in November 2016 how the Republican party decided to sleepwalk to defeat.”

Chris Christie -- Dead Candidate Walking, Part 2

Both the New York Times and Washington Post have stories about how GOP donors aren’t flocking to Chris Christie -- instead they’re signing up with Jeb Bush. But just a reminder that NBC’s Perry Bacon wrote this same story a week ago: “New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is facing growing skepticism from influential Republicans about his likely presidential run, with many in the party privately expressing doubts that he has any chance of winning the GOP nomination and some of Christie's former backers unwilling to say they will support his campaign.” As we put it earlier this week, Christie appears to be a Dead Candidate Walking.

On “Meet” this Sunday

Finally, on Meet the Press” this Sunday, NBC’s Chuck Todd will interview Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and he’ll also do deep dives into Libya and the Voting Rights Act.

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