Why Republican contenders should drop the misinformation about Obama

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Illustration by Matt Dorfman for TIME; Obama: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

"There may be some fundamental anti-Americanism in this President," the radio host suggested, and Mike Huckabee — the Republican presidential front runner in the current meaningless polls — quickly agreed, capping an orgy of insinuation and misinformation about Barack Obama during a late-winter book tour. First, Huckabee said Obama had been raised in Kenya and sympathized with the "anticolonialism" of the Mau Mau rebellion. Then, backtracking, he said he simply meant to imply that Obama had a "different worldview," having been raised in Indonesia. "Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings, and our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrasahs."

To which one can only say, Ick. Of course, Obama was raised in neither Kenya nor Indonesia (where he did spend four years) but in Hawaii, by his Kansas Republican grandparents. He was a Boy Scout. He didn't attend a madrasah. There are a multitude of Rotary Clubs in both Indonesia and Hawaii. And about that anticolonialism business, isn't that why we, especially the Teasies among us, adore the Founding Fathers? But the facts aren't nearly as virulent as the insinuations. That Huckabee was able to associate the President with the terms mau-mau and madrasah on successive days has to qualify as sheer, surgical brilliance. For those of a certain age — my age — mau-mau has a certain resonance, our first association with half-crazed black militancy. (Or so it seemed. Was the Mau Mau rebellion any more brutal than the British occupation? I doubt it.) Tom Wolfe made the noun a clever verb: to mau-mau was the act of black people intimidating white people. And madrasahs are where Islamic militants are bred.

This, of course, is the ultimate right-wing radical fantasy: Barack Obama is not only a black militant; he's also an Islamic radical. And while Huckabee's crude use of these canards should disqualify him from the presidency, his statements can't merely be dismissed as book-tour Huckabucking — certainly not at a moment when the number of Republicans who believe that Obama is not even a U.S. citizen has surged to 51%. Their views will have to be respected by the Republican candidates lining up for the primaries. That respect will not be expressed as baldly as in Huckabee's eruptions; it will be evinced in winks and nods.

There is, for example, the subtly venomous notion that Obama doesn't believe in American exceptionalism. At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), every potential candidate except Ron Paul and Mitch Daniels had a go at this theme. It is rooted in a comment Obama made to a British reporter: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." He went on to make the case for American exceptionalism — our Constitution, our democratic institutions, citizenship that is based in core beliefs rather than in ethnicity — and he reiterated this, eloquently, in both his Tucson and State of the Union speeches this year. But that doesn't matter. Anytime Obama seems insufficiently militant overseas — his current reluctance to use force in Libya, for example — he is accused of tepid semi-Americanism. The fact that he has more than doubled troop levels in Afghanistan and used Predator drones against the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan far more aggressively than George W. Bush ever did apparently counts for nothing.

A corollary argument is that Obama has undertaken a global "apology" tour. This is nonsense. Obama has acknowledged mistakes we have made, like slavery, which George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also denounced in the strongest possible terms, but he uses these acknowledgments as a method to also mention the mistakes of our allies. He did say, accurately, that the U.S. had "shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive" toward Europe, but he proceeded to accuse the Europeans of "an anti-Americanism that is ... casual but also can be insidious."

Speaking of Europe, the mildest argument hinting that Obama is not quite American goes something like this: "[The Administration] tried to turn this country into France," Senator Mitch McConnell told the CPAC faithful. That is, Obama is a European-style socialist. This is another gross exaggeration. Exhibit A is the Obama health care reform, based on the Republican notion of an individual mandate, first enacted by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

But with the European contrast, at least, we approach a national debate worth having: whether to spend more or less on government and whether the government should help people pay for health care, encourage homeownership by subsidizing mortgages or try to tilt the energy market away from fossil fuels. The more Republicans emphasize this essential disagreement — and steer clear of the Huckabull — the better the campaign we'll have, and the better their chances of success.