Obama’s Park51 Mistake
Guess what happens when you try to please everybody
Unless the Park51 developers decide they will play ball with New York Gov. David Paterson (and they most recently denied reports that they are willing to move sites), the issue looks likely to fade into memory as another culture war battle, another bit of sound and fury signifying many things and leading to nothing in particular. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) prominently opposed the mosque’s building, presumably because of his tough upcoming election fight. Former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich essentially equated Nazism and Islam, presumably to gear up for his tough upcoming primary election fight. Politics once again brings out the best in us all.
And then there is Obama. His position—speaking in favor of religious tolerance Friday night, in a way that seemed to endorse the center; then spending the rest of the weekend backtracking—was blunt: Not in the way strong opinions are blunt, but in the way heavily used razors are blunt.
What has his waffling accomplished? One wants to say that he pushed the conventional wisdom toward the position that, if nothing else, the Park51 developers have the right to build their center there, and in fact he probably did. But it was never all that important for the conventional wisdom to come around on the rights issue: Constitutional rights don’t require conventional wisdom; they can be opposed by 90 percent of the electorate at any given time and our judicial system is still going to uphold them; that’s what makes them Constitutional rights.
What Obama’s bland non-position has done, really, is to raise the temperature on an issue that was already hot enough while providing a further opening for the center’s detractors and no comfort for its supporters. (It was also almost certainly a stupid move politically—stupider than just keeping his mouth shut, anyway—but never mind.) Richard Cohen’s op-ed today is something of a masterpiece, and the first thing you should email around if you indeed support the center’s construction at 45-51 Park Place. But reasonable people can differ on that. What seems indisputable is Cohen’s point about Obama:
Having once again gotten high praise for so very little, he went to bed a panicked man and reached, trembling, some hours later, for a political morning-after pill to take back some of what he had said. Whew, for a moment there he was pregnant with principle. …
Does he not grasp that questioning the “wisdom” of the mosque’s placement is predicated on thinking that 9/11 was a Muslim crime? Does he not understand that the issue here is religious prejudice, not zoning? The answer, of course, is that he does.
That’s what is so profoundly disappointing. Most of what we know about the man suggests that he personally agrees with the minority of Americans that the center should be built as planned. If he had admitted this, then great. If he had determined, whether out of principle or political wisdom, that it was not his place to comment, then that could be respected. Instead, no one is happy. “But unlike Henry Clay,” writes Cohen, “he would rather be president than right.” His non-stand makes both less likely.