Despite polling that shows most Americans -- including Democrats and even many liberals -- oppose building a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, Republicans are making a big mistake in building their fall campaign around the issue, in the process handing Democrats a big opportunity.
GOPers obviously believe that the symbolism of the mosque issue makes it ripe of exploitation. And it might be true that the mosque is the best issue they've got going for them, even if the public debate about it has been fueled by bigotry and false characterizations of the proposal. Nonetheless, their decision to exploit it says more about the fundamental weakness of GOP than it does about their political prowess.
Here's why: the mosque issue is far less important than the economy, and every moment that the GOP spends focusing its message on the mosque provides Democrats with the chance to point out that Republicans are fundamentally unserious about doing what it takes to get the economy going again.
Every poll shows the economy is priority #1, #2, and #3, yet Republicans haven't offered a single economic plan other than to do nothing. In Sen. Bob Corker's (R-TN) own words:
I think the best thing we can do in Washington at this time is really just to calm down and quit changing sweeping -- making sweeping changes. ... the best thing we can do is just calm down, to really let people's balance sheets sort of get back where they need to be. That will stimulate demand over time.
Not only do they support doing nothing, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says that despite the GOP's record use of the filibuster, he wishes that that GOP had managed to block Democrats on even more policies:
“I am amused with their comments about obstructionism,” Mr. McConnell said in an interview. “I wish we had been able to obstruct more. They were able to get the health care bill through. They were able to get the stimulus through. They were able to get the financial reform through. These were all major pieces of legislation, and if I would have had enough votes to stop them, I would have.”
Of course, it's possible Republicans have a secret agenda for the economy, but if so it's likely to consist of nothing more than slashing Social Security, further reducing Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, and getting rid of any regulations keeping corporate America honest. And if that's their agenda, it's understandable they don't want to say it out loud.
What we're left with is a Republican Party that hasn't found the time to offer an economic plan but has somehow found all the time in the world to deliver very specific ideas and commentary on the proposed mosque two blocks from ground zero.
It's telling that this is the debate Republicans want to have -- where a mosque should be built, instead of how to revive our economy. The reason couldn't be more clear -- they don't believe they can deliver a winning message on the economy. So instead, they want to talk about what parts of the country should be "mosque exclusion zones."
It's entirely cynical, it's entirely political, and it demonstrates the fact that they believe Americans really aren't smart enough to figure out what's going on here. To borrow a phrase used by my dad to explain McCain's selection of Palin, Republicans exploiting the mosque issue are like Gollum drawn to the ring, unable to restrain themselves from seeking power at all costs, even if they know better.
But the American people are smart enough to figure out what's going on, and that's where the opportunity is for Democrats. Instead of chickening out like Harry Reid, Democrats should take the principled position of President Obama while simultaneously pointing out that the reason the GOP is trying to change the topic is because they don't want to talk about their plans -- or lack of them -- for the economy.
The choice Democrats should put to the voters is this:
Democrats are focused on the economy: Democrats want more federal policies that will strengthen the economic recovery and job market, and they don't think the federal government has any business picking and choosing which religions are acceptable. The Democratic Party's top priority is helping the private sector -- including small businesses -- put people back to work.
Meanwhile, Republicans are focused on a mosque: The Republicans top priority is to incite a national argument about a mosque, avoiding saying anything at all about the economy. They want the federal government to get involved with the decision over where mosques should be built, but when it comes to delivering a boost to people who can't find work, Republicans draw the line. They think it's fine for the Federal government to get involved in local religious issues, but it shouldn't do a damn thing to help the national economy.
That's a winning frame for Democrats. Hopefully, Dems recognize that Republicans have stepped into a trap by ignoring the most important issue facing the country and take full advantage of it. This is an opportunity to go on offense, not defense. It's jujitsu time.