Four Laughable Explanations for Mitt Romney’s Birther Joke

So this happened today in Michigan.

“No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate,” Mitt Romney quips. “They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.” Without using our powers of telepathy to read Romney’s mind, it sounds like a classic example of the guy saying something that offends people without knowing why it would. Here’s why: Romney’s a white guy who grew up in Michigan, whereas Barack Obama’s a black guy who spent some formative years in Indonesia.

It’s a simple story. Romney made a joke that relies on a debunked conspiracy theory about the president—a theory especially popular with people who don’t like blacks and foreigners. Romney’s crowd cheered. He probably opened up a preconvention worm-can that he didn’t mean to open. This, I think, is why we’re already seeing the comment spun away. The four biggest spins:

It’s just a joke. Well, sure, but who’s the joke for? Since the summer of 2008, false rumors have circulated online, alleging that Obama’s pregnant teenage mother flew to Kenya—or something like that—and gave birth to a kid who wasn’t eligible for the presidency. Starting that year, activists started filing lawsuits, full of false information, aiming to get Obama kicked off of presidential ballots. In 2009, somewhat surprisingly, the conspiracy theory became even more popular—more lawsuits, members of Congress proposing legislation to require birth certificates from candidates, endless rumors at sites like WorldNetDaily that encouraged people to support soldiers who refused to serve under Obama. Even through this year, Donald Trump has continued pushing the theory and Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio has convened a “cold case posse” that produced evidence—all bogus—that the birth certificate is forged. Romney’s been endorsed by both those guys.

It’s fair play because Obama lowered the tone of the campaign by joking about Seamus. OK. Mitt Romney once put his dog in a kennel on the roof of his car and drove to Canada. But Obama wasn’t actually born in Kenya. Spot the difference? I completely see the comparison between the Seamus story and Obama’s story of eating “dog meat” in Indonesia. Both of those things are embarrassing and they happened.

The Obama campaign has accused Romney of all manner of things, like being a felon, and this is just “feigned outrage.” Hence the Seamus reference. Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, responded to the mid-July wave of Romney/Bain stories by saying Romney had either lied to the Federal Election Commission, “which is a felony,” or was “misrepresenting his position at Bain to the American people. If that’s the case, if he was lying to the American people, that’s a real character and trust issue.” Over time this has morphed into a weapon of Romney umbrage—he claims that the campaign called him “a felon.” Lucky for him, reporters have adopted that take on the quote. Two problems, though. Cutter was (badly) making an either/or statement—it obviously wasn’t likely that Romney had committed a crime, so maybe he was lying. Also, Cutter is a surrogate for Obama. Obama himself hasn’t said anything like that. (He’s just disagreed with the “your campaign called Romney a felon” spin, which has been interpreted as proof that he endorses the “attack,” which wasn’t really made then and hasn’t been made since.) We assign more weight to statements made by candidates than by surrogates. I warned you that this would be obvious, right?

Hey, Obama has joked about the birth certificate, too! How can it be offensive? There’s some truth here. Ever since the Great Trump Interregnum of 2011, when the president published his long-form birth certificate, his campaign has sold a coffee mug that reproduces the form under the slogan “Made in the U.S.A.” There are, right now, hipsters who love Obama but have those mugs in their cabinets. But a fairly clever child is probably familiar with this rule: You can say certain things about yourself and your friends that other people can’t say. In 2005, when he was gearing up to run for president and his state was famous for legal gay marriage, Mitt Romney liked to riff on the Mormon church’s past practices of polygamy. “I believe,” he’d say, that “marriage should be between a man and a woman … and a woman … and a woman.” But when Romney ran for U.S. Senate in 1994 and then-Rep. Joe Kennedy brought up the polygamy issue, Romney—correctly—lit into him. (Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but I vaguely remember George Romney going nuclear on Kennedy.) Republicans would light into Obama if he ever made a joke like Romney’s. I could explain why, but it’s so obvious that you might pass out.