Ground zero mosque flap: how Obama and Democrats can recover

Time to change the subject from the ground zero mosque controversy to something else, like jobs and the economy, say Democratic strategists. But the issue continues to draw comments from Democratic candidates.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Ground zero mosque: Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada said through a spokesman Monday that while the First Amendment protects freedom of religion, he 'thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else.'

How can President Obama and the Democrats recover from the mosque brouhaha?

Change the subject, say Democratic strategists.

Mr. Obama needs to “get back out there and talk about his plans to get the economy back, and quit getting distracted with these other issues,” says a Democratic consultant based in Washington.

“On some level, I was very proud of him for weighing in” on the controversy over the privately owned Islamic center planned near ground zero in Manhattan, the consultant adds. “But as a Democratic political strategist, he is screwing all of us. He is screwing the party. And he’s got to get control of the message. All these House candidates ... they’re all feeling it.”

But even if Obama himself has stopped talking about the mosque, others in his party have continued to fuel the beast known as talk TV. On Monday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who is locked in a tough reelection battle, said through a spokesman that while the First Amendment protects freedom of religion, he “thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else."

On Tuesday, Democratic Illinois Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias came out in support of the mosque, according to Associated Press. "Are we going to talk about tolerance, talk about freedom of religion, or are we actually going to practice it?" Mr. Giannoulias said during a visit to the Illinois State Fair in Springfield.

Both comments raised eyebrows. In Senator Reid’s case, the decision to take a firm position against the location of the mosque may represent an unnecessary risk.

“As a Democrat, to go strong against the president risks alienating a part of your base,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “He needs the whole thing.”

Giannoulias, in taking the opposite tack, also has not done himself any favors, Mr. Jillson says, because by taking sides, he risks irritating potential supporters.

“When the Democrats were making the argument that it was a local issue, they were in good shape,” says Jillson. “The Republicans then seemed to be mean-spirited and anti-immigrant, and made the Democrats look like they were supporting not just minorities but also constitutional rights and liberties for all Americans.”

One Republican who has jumped in with particularly pungent comments against the mosque is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who may be gearing up for a presidential run. Mr. Gingrich called the organizers “radical Islamists” and compared them to Nazis. He said: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington.”

But when Obama jumped into the fray, and the dynamic of the debate shifted dramatically.

Obama initially weighed in Friday evening, at an Islamic dinner at the White House, asserting the Muslims’ right to build a place of worship on private property in lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws. The next day, he clarified his comment to say that he was not passing judgment on the “wisdom” of the mosque’s location, just asserting the American commitment to religious freedom.

Now the president is on a three-day, five-state campaign swing around the country, in support of Democratic candidates, particularly in the fundraising department – but the mosque is still Topic A on cable TV. Two incumbent Democrats in particular need help, Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington, both of whom are in trouble mainly because it’s a tough cycle for Democrats. They also drew top-tier challengers.

Washington State holds its primary today, and the result could be telling. It is a “jungle” primary, which means all the Senate candidates run against each other on the same ballot. The top two finishers face each other in November. Senator Murray is expected to come in first, but if she scores much below 50 percent, that could signal trouble in the general election.

On Thursday, Obama and his family head off to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts for 10 days of vacation. When they get back, August will nearly be over, and, Democrats hope, the furor over the mosque will have died down.

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