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  Cup o' Joel  

Is Barack Obama really an American citizen? (Yes.)

But not everybody thinks so. Why is that? That’s the question Ben and I take on in this week’s Scripps Howard column. My take:

First, some praise for mainstream Republicans: They’ve been as vigorous as anybody in smacking down the false rumors about Barack Obama’s origins. National Review, the conservative bible, emphatically denounced the “birther” allegations in a recent editorial. And Congressional backers of the birth certificate bill have, when pressed, said they believe the president is a U.S.-born citizen. It’s clear the GOP doesn’t want to die on the hill of fringe conspiracy theories.

Does that mean that conservative hands are clean in this smear? No.

Although they’ve distanced themselves from the loonier charges, Republicans have long tried to sell the public on the idea that there’s a “secret” Barack Obama whose darker instincts endanger the country.

Obama has, at various times, been depicted as a “secret” socialist, a “secret” black nationalist and a “secret” friend to terrorists — as a man whose professions of patriotism can’t be trusted, who is willing to sell out America because, well, he doesn’t love the country as much as you or I.

The Republican Party has been hard at work tilling the conspiracy soil. Is it any wonder that fringe flowers have bloomed? Again, this is a staple of GOP commentary — on radio talk shows, on Fox News and in other conservative bully pulpits.

And it’s not exactly a new trick: Remember the 1990s, when Bill and Hillary Clinton were widely accused in Republican circles of orchestrating the murder of Vince Foster?

Given that history, maybe GOP leaders are rejecting the “birther” theory not because it’s false, but because it’s bad politics for them. The most extreme conspiracy theories are more damaging to the Republican brand than to the president. Rejecting the fringe might put Republicans on the side of truth, but in this case that may just be a happy accident.

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