Why the GOP Should Avoid the Mosque Issue

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From left: J. Scott Applewhite / AP; Mike Segar / Reuters

Dear Republican Party:

Your moment is now.

This weekend, President Obama defended the right of Muslims to build a community center and mosque two short blocks from Ground Zero, despite cries of insensitivity from some New Yorkers and accusations of mischief from some pundits. This finally gives you an opportunity to add a powerful national-security cudgel to the message of economic woe you have been pushing as the midterm election approaches.

The political potency of the issue is obvious. Polls overwhelmingly show the President has put himself on the wrong side of public opinion. Opposition to the new facility arouses acute emotion and creates near total unity among relatives of 9/11 victims, first responders, Republican officeholders, potential 2012 presidential candidates, Tea Party members, the Fox News–talk radio–Drudge Report echo machine and many of the highly coveted swing and occasional voters whom you will need at the polls to win in November.

Up until now, you have restricted yourself as much as possible to an economic message, eschewing social issues and foreign policy as you try to establish contrasts for the electorate between your brand and the Obama-Pelosi-Reid record. This is a smart, straightforward strategy, since worried voters chiefly are concerned about unemployment and the nation's future financial prospects.

But you also have been frustrated by the President's skill at limiting Democratic vulnerability on the party's traditional weak spot, national-security issues. Sure, Obama remains a young, inexperienced Commander in Chief with few discernible foreign policy achievements. But he has left almost no room for attack on his security record. He has shrewdly retained Bush's Defense Secretary (letting Robert Gates take the lead on Pentagon budget cutting); continued many of the previous Administration's antiterrorism policies at home and abroad, to the chagrin of some civil libertarians; engaged in a tough assassination campaign against suspected al-Qaeda operatives around the world; and emphasized the necessity of winning in Afghanistan, placing the revered David Petraeus in charge of the game plan. In 2008, Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992 to successfully play offense on national-security issues, and his bold choices and canny instincts have thus far served him well in warding off GOP assaults in office. All the while, he has adeptly dodged the Muslim issue, often a subject of slick gossip and bizarre innuendo, which you have wisely left to gather dust since the campaign.

Now Obama has given you an in. At a White House dinner on Friday celebrating the start of Ramadan, the President took a position. "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," he said. "That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances." This remark opened the door so wide that walking through it will be effortless. Even your usually tone-deaf national chairman, Michael Steele, could not mess this one up. If you go full force on the offensive, every Democratic candidate in every competitive race in the country will have three choices, none of them good, when asked about the Islamic center: side with Obama and against public opinion; oppose Obama and deal with the consequences of intraparty disunity; or refuse to take a position, waffling impotently and unattractively at a crucial time.

Say what you will about the wisdom of Obama's policies overall, but his belated commentary on religious freedoms clearly was not done for political gain. Quite the contrary. the President knew that he and his party would almost certainly pay a political price for taking a stand, especially this close to the election, and with few prominent leaders, other than New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, on the White House's side. The reaction since the President spoke has been vitriolic and unvarying from leading voices on the right, painting Obama as weak, naive, out of touch and obtuse (not to mention flip-flopping, after his confusing follow-up comments Saturday suggested to some that he might be hedging his position).

Yes, Republicans, you can take advantage of this heated circumstance, backed by the families of the 9/11 victims, in their most emotional return to the public stage since 2001.

But please don't do it. There are a handful of good reasons to oppose allowing the Islamic center to be built so close to Ground Zero, particularly the family opposition and the availability of other, less raw locations. But what is happening now — the misinformation about the center and its supporters; the open declarations of war on Islam on talk radio, the Internet and other forums; the painful divisions propelled by all the overheated rhetoric — is not worth whatever political gain your party might achieve.

It isn't clear how the battle over the proposed center should or will end. But two things are profoundly clear: Republicans have a strong chance to win the midterm elections without picking a fight over President Obama's measured words. And a national political fight conducted on the terms we have seen in the past few days will lead to a chain reaction at home and abroad that will have one winner — the very extreme and violent jihadists we all can claim as our true enemy.

As I said, Republicans, this is your moment. As a famous New Yorker once urged in a very different context: Do the right thing.