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Candidates Say the Darndest Things

The New York Times published a condensed, edited transcript of an interview with Rick Perry today. Much of it was devoted to a defense of his flat tax proposal. Perry held his ground well in those questions and refused to concede that an abandonment of progressive taxation was unjust or that allowing the wealthy to keep more of their own money would harm anyone else.

But unfortunately for Perry, the Times reporters thought to ask him about his absurd comments about President Obama’s birth certificate, and the Texas governor responded by digging himself deeper into the hole he previously dug on this issue:

Q. Why did you choose to keep the birther issue alive?

A. It’s a good issue to keep alive. You know, [Donald Trump] has got to have some fun. It’s fun to poke him a little bit and say, “Hey, let’s see your grades and your birth certificate.” I don’t have a clue about where the president — and what this birth certificate says. But it’s also a great distraction. I’m not distracted by it.

While I’m sure we’re all happy to know our presidential candidates are having “fun,” questioning the citizenship of a president who has already produced a birth certificate is a dangerous road to travel down. Doing so means either Perry is actually interested in appealing to extremist “birthers,” or he is so fundamentally unserious he doesn’t understand the implications of championing a noxious conspiracy theory.

Because I find it hard to believe a generally hardheaded politician like Perry would think there is any benefit to trying to gain the approval of a marginal group unlikely to produce many votes, I’m afraid we’re left with the latter explanation.

It’s one thing for a figure like Donald Trump to talk about birth certificates. Trump is a television celebrity who occasionally poses as a politician. He is not someone who is in any danger of either being elected president or being taken seriously by anyone other than the tabloids. But Perry is a sitting governor of a major state and, though his presidential prospects have declined precipitously in recent weeks, is someone who conceivably could take the oath of office in January 2013. For him to not only raise the birther issue but then to double down on it in an interview in the Times of all places is a revealing gaffe.

Conspiracy theories such as the “birther” canard about Obama or the “truther” lies about 9/11 can eat away at the fabric of democracy. In particular, the questions about Obama’s birth provide distractions that allow liberals to portray those who make trenchant criticisms about the president’s inept administration as either racists or extremists. This is the last thing we need to hear from a serious Republican presidential candidate. To do so as some kind of an inside joke with Donald Trump shows us a side of Rick Perry that does little to inspire confidence in his judgment.



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