President Obama's release of his birth certificate hopefully ends forever Donald Trump's circus act, where he repeatedly questioned President Obama's citizenship. The media fascination with the attacks sucked the air out of the Republican primary and made Republicans look idiotic and incapable of addressing major issues. I found the attacks frustrating not because they were half-cocked, but because our nation faces real challenges that should be debated by presidential candidates. As President Obama recently noted, the birth certificate brouhaha replaced a focus on what is important to our national future.
I did not support Obama for president and would rate his performance as mixed, at best, but I found the attacks on the president's citizenship and academic record revolting. At the ballot box in 2008, Americans decided that despite similar attacks, Senator Obama should be President Obama. The citizenship question was not only silly, but history has also proven that raising it is not a winning plan. The matter can now be closed as a matter of strategy, law and common sense. With more than two years in the job, President Obama can and should be judged based on his actual leadership as President of the United States, not by witless allegations of his legal qualifications.
The Trump challenge was more irritating than amusing as it highlighted structural problems with our system. As I note in my recent bestselling book, The Comeback: How Innovation will Restore the American Dream, Americans understand that we are at a critical strategic point determining the future of our nation and the economic well-being of our children. In short, America is on the verge of decline, and we need to confront this reality and act on it. Instead we debate the President's citizenship. The birther argument and similar aspersions hurt us three ways:
First, they reflect how our two-party system squelches debate on important issues within the party. The Republican Party (just like the Democratic Party) demands absolute loyalty to a broad platform so that it is impossible to discern any real differences among all the current primary contenders for president. Conventional wisdom says that to prevail in the Republican primaries, a candidate must be pro-life, pro-military, pro-guns, anti-taxes, anti-gay, pro-war on drugs and pro-business. The candidate is only allowed to disagree on something as silly as whether President Obama is a citizen. Thus, the pool of candidates is narrowed because of the extreme loyalty to party positions demanded. Similarly, the Democratic Party approach -- pro-union, pro-trial lawyer, don't touch entitlements, raise taxes on the wealthy -- is also now a requisite for any candidate for president or even for Senate.
Sadly, there are no candidates in America who take more nuanced positions (e.g,. some abortions are wrong and some should be allowed; or the deficit must be reduced by cutting spending, cutting tax loopholes and implementing a growth strategy) or even for those who believe each party is right on some issues but not on others.
Second, the Trump challenge and its publicity reflect a fascination with the trivial rather than a focus on the major strategic decisions our nation faces. For example, both parties are failing to set national priorities to deal with deficits. It's like the media scrum that surrounded Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan when they self-destructed. The individual tragedy of watching a celebrity with a personal imbalance or out of control ego is more interesting than a national discussion on the big issues of our time. How can we address big issues if we are debating the citizenship of the President?
Finally, the seriousness with which the Trump challenge was considered by the media and even by the White House reflects a nation that is badly divided. The birthers detest the President so deeply they cling to a legal Hail Mary for their salvation. They are hateful, frustrated and lacking of the intellectual capacity to challenge President Obama on substance that they resort to what they view as a silver bullet "gotcha" to end what they view as a national nightmare.
The January shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords gave us pause, and perhaps hope, that we could disagree without being disagreeable. Sadly, our petty national personality appears to have returned.
The citizenship challenge of the President and the corresponding scare and smear campaign run by Democrats against the Republican's adult effort to begin attacking the deficit through changes to Medicare has quickly devolved us to a nation where our political leaders -- bolstered by the media -- seem incapable of allowing us to address the huge problems we face.
The partisanship rancor is not helpful to moving the nation forward. One group, No Labels, has come forward as gathering and rewarding politicians of both parties and other leaders who are willing to address the tough issues through discussion, negotiation and compromise. Hopefully, this adult approach will win out and Americans will join, speak out and ask the frivolous and the partisans to step aside for those who can work together, listen to each other and work in the best interest of our kids and their future.
Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents more than 2,000 technology companies and owns and produces the International CES. Shapiro is the author of The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.
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