Okay, I admit it, it may be my fault, I've watched Chris Matthews for three straight nights, and each evening he's sent the same question out into querulous cablespace: why the birthers?
Matthews, like many liberals, paleo-liberals and neo-liberals, chooses to seem baffled by the phenomenon of people insisting that whatever proof Barack Obama, the state of Hawaii, and others have provided of his native-born status, this is not sufficient. And yet, it's not that hard to understand.
I'm not arguing for Obama's otherness, which seems to be the surface point of the birther movement. He seems as American as, say, any other Chicago pol.
The reason for the growth of birtherism, I'm suggesting, lies in the history of the last two presidencies. Bill Clinton was reviled by Republicans, partly because he won and partly because he won with the aid of a third-party candidate (Ross Perot), meaning that he enjoyed a plurality, but not a majority of the popular vote. George W. Bush was reviled by Democrats because he didn't win the popular vote at all, and was handed the electoral vote by a 5-4 decision of a Supreme Court so unsure of its reasoning that it insisted its decision in Bush v. Gore not be used as precedent.
The opposition, in both cases, was fueled, energized, and supercharged to a point of near mania by the whiff of illegitimacy. Both the opposition to Clinton and the opposition to Bush drew power, endurance, and bile from the feeling that the incumbent was a rank usurper.
That's heady stuff, and it goes far, I think, to explain the toxic nature of recent American politics. If a putative democracy has been hijacked, of course normal civility in opposition seems pathetic and pusillanimous.
Enter Barack Obama. One could be satisfied with opposing him on issues, as I do on the lunacy of the Afghanistan venture (al Qaeda has long since moved its leaders to Pakistan and its recruiting to Somalia) and the vacancy of his response to the continuing federal betrayal of New Orleans. But events show you can't turn out livid opponents to town hall meetings on those policy grounds. You can generate mouth-foamers, however, with the question of his nation of birth. Republicans, dependent on consultants to advise them on the exquisite variety of methods of nay-saying, gaze longingly at the emotional power of a charge of illegitimacy. The birthers are their wind turbines.
Questioning the legitimacy of a president, like questioning the legitimacy of your best friend's children, is a sure-fire way to get sparks going, to fire up the base, to turn a torpid opposition into a pitchfork brigade. We've twice tasted this heady brew, and both enjoyed and recoiled at its bitter high. In this light, it's easy to understand why some opponents to a still-popular president would be drawn to a cause that once again allows the suggestion of illegitimacy to trump disagreement with policy.