MR. GREGORY: As the speaker of the House, as a leader, do you not think it's your responsibility to stand up to that kind of ignorance?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: David, it's not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people. Having said that, the state of Hawaii has said that he was born there. That's good enough for me. The president says he's a Christian. I accept him at his word.
MR. GREGORY: But isn't that a little bit fast and loose? I mean, you are the leader in Congress and you're not standing up to obvious facts and saying, "These are facts. If you don't believe that, it's nonsense."
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I just outlined the facts as I understand them. I believe that the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian. I'll take him at his word. But, but...
MR. GREGORY: But that kind of ignorance about whether he's a Muslim doesn't concern you?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: Listen, the American people have the right to think what they want to think. I can't--it's not my job to tell them.
I guess there are a couple of ways to look at this. One is that Boehner is so cynical that he won't repudiate ideas based on even the most blatant bigotry and hatred if he thinks they might provide the smallest political benefit to his party. But I don't that's what's going on here. Boehner's not dumb enough to believe that there might still be some independent voters out there who could be persuaded to vote Republican in 2012 if he sows a little more doubt about whether Barack Obama is really "one of us."
No, this is about fear. It's often said that elite Democrats hate their base while elite Republicans fear theirs, and Republicans have more reason to fear their base than ever. Not only can't Boehner bring himself to criticize birthers, he even feels compelled to send them little winks that he might be with them ("I believe that the president is a citizen," rather than "The president is a citizen," "I'll take him at his word" as though Obama's religion was something for which all we have to go on is his word). He's terrified of saying anything that might displease the Republican fringe, the Tea Partiers wondering whether they can trust the party to continue the holy war, or whether they should mount primary challenges against their Republican senators and members of Congress.
The next time you hear someone say that both parties have their crazies, ask whether the highest-ranking elected official in the Democratic party ever went on television and said of those who believe George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks, "It's not my job to tell the American people what to think."