Every once in a while, you have to feel sorry for Mitt Romney. One of his surrogates during his unsuccessful 2008 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination was Dr. John Willke, the controversial doctor who inspired Missouri Congressman Todd Akin's now infamous belief that a raped woman is unlikely to become pregnant. Moreover, the good doctor is inconveniently sticking to his guns. A woman being raped, he told the New York Times last week, "is frightened, tight, and so on. And sperm, if deposited in her vagina, are less likely to be able to fertilize. The tubes are spastic."
According to the Times, Dr. Michael Greene, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, dismisses Willke's theories as "just nuts."
Another 2008 Romney supporter was Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff charged by the U.S. Justice Department with discrimination and racial profiling who is also one of the foremost proponents of the equally wacky proposition that President Obama was not born in Hawaii, is therefore not a naturally born U.S. citizen, and consequently is ineligible to serve as president. Arpaio believes the president's birth certificate to be a forgery, and it appears that nothing under the sun can convince him otherwise.
There are lots more birthers out there, including most prominently Donald Trump, all driven by an irrational animus toward the president. Understandably, Governor Romney does not want to needlessly antagonize them. They, too, may well be nuts, but a vote is a vote irrespective of the citizen's IQ or emotional equilibrium.
Still, it was disturbing to hear Governor Romney quip this past Friday that "No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate." To be sure, he subsequently dismissed his comments as an attempt to "have a little humor" in the campaign. "I've said throughout the campaign and before, there's no question where [President Obama] was born," he told CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley. "He was born in the U.S." The problem, of course, is that the generally humorless birthers were certain to interpret the "birth certificate" comment not as a joke but as an indication that Governor Romney was sympathetic to their cause. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described it as "a bat's squeak calling to the basest emotions."
Last year, in an article in which I argued that Governor Romney's Mormon faith should not be made an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, I observed that he "does not come across in any way as mean-spirited," and quoted him as telling the Values Voters Summit that, "We should remember that decency and civility are values, too."
Unfortunately, as I have also noted recently, there is nothing decent or civil in the attempts by certain Republicans to depict President Obama as somehow un-American, and to date Governor Romney has not done nearly enough to dissociate himself from the nastier, unquestionably mean-spirited personal attacks on President Obama that emanate from others in his party.
In the interest of full disclosure, I support President Obama and am a presidential appointee to the board of a federal institution. At the same time, I consider finding a middle ground on most issues other than civil and human rights to be critical to our national political process. Thus, when Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) reached across the aisle to try to come up with a compromise proposal for Medicare reform, I applauded their effort.
"Perhaps the most serious problem with the contemporary American political landscape," I wrote on that occasion,
is that far too many prominent Democrats and Republicans alike seem to have devolved in counter-Darwinian fashion to cliché-ridden sound-bite spouting exponents of unimaginative insipid dogma. My way or the high way has become the safe option, ensuring both continued grid-lock and a refusal to even consider original ideas that do not conform to or promote a pre-set political agenda, whether from the right or the left. . . . The Ryan-Wyden Medicare reform plan may well be less than perfect. But we know that all or nothing will in the end get us nothing.
Still, there comes a point when a willingness to consider the other side's point of view must come to a screeching halt. The ongoing efforts by a more than significant number of Republican and other conservative leaders and ideologues to demonize President Obama are, simply put, an abomination that the collective GOP leadership must repudiate if they expect the rest of us to give any of their ideas due consideration.
This goes far beyond the birthers who could be dismissed as part of the loony element of the electorate. Accusing President Obama of espousing "some phony theology" (Rick Santorum), charging that he "wants to destroy capitalism" and "nurtures a hatred for the white man" (conservative Christian radio host Bryan Fischer), referring to him as the "food-stamp president" (Newt Gingrich), alleging that his administration has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood (Michele Bachmann), proclaiming that "He's just not an American" (Rep. Mike Coffman, R.-Colo.) and that he "hates this country" (Rush Limbaugh), denouncing him as an "anti-Christian, anti-religious bigot" (conservative radio host and columnist Jeffrey T. Kuhner), calling him a Muslim who "hates the U.S." (Hank Williams, Jr.), and repeatedly likening him to Adolf Hitler (again, Rush Limbaugh) are part and parcel of an insidious campaign of personal destruction that cannot be countenanced in the American body politic of the 21st century.
I do not believe that Governor Romney or Representative Ryan shares any of these vile sentiments. The time has come for them to say so publicly and unambiguously.
The fact is that the overwhelming majority of the U.S. electorate yearns for a substantive discussion of the issues. It is to be hoped that President Obama and Governor Romney will engage in a spirited debate on the economy, jobs, taxes, healthcare, foreign policy, immigration, the future of Social Security, judicial appointments, their respective positions on abortion and gay rights, their competing visions for the future of the United States, and even, time permitting, their views on global warming and evolution.
Hate-mongering in any form, however, is not a permissible political strategy. As the 2012 presidential campaign shifts into high gear, I fervently hope that there can be a consensus among both Republicans and Democrats that the demonization of the President of the United States, or anyone else for that matter, will be neither tolerated nor rewarded.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and World War II war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.