By Megan Kenworthy, ,
Published December 23, 2015
Former Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean is the latest party faithful to publicly walk back comments on the proposed Ground Zero mosque, suggesting strong language could linger well into the midterm election season.
Dean told the Huffington Post Wednesday that if the mosque is built in the proposed location two blocks from the site of the Twin Towers collapse, it won't upset him, language far more mundane than he used earlier in the day with WABC radio, when he said the plan was "a real affront to people who lost their lives [on 9/11]."
The former governor of Vermont and presidential candidate follows party leaders President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in clarifying their language, but without admitting it. All three claim to stand by their original comments, yet later sought to explain them without "backtracking." President Obama said he was not specifically talking about this mosque, and Pelosi who first called for a probe into who was funding the mosque, later said she favored "transparency" instead.
This need to clarify suggests the Democrats are worried about alienating another group of voters before the November elections, as recent polls show a lack of enthusiasm among the party's core voting bloc.
Larry Sabato of University of Virginia's Center for Politics says Mr. Obama's decision to speak out publicly was neither wise nor necessary, and that spells trouble in November.
"Opinions are divided about whether President Obama was right substantively on the mosque issue, but you can't find too many Democratic political operatives or candidates in competitive races who will defend his decision to wade into this controversy," Sabato says. "Howard Dean and others are hoping to defuse this matter before it becomes a sore point all the way to November."
Republican operatives like Jason Roe, the managing partner of a California based campaign strategy firm, agree. "This is going to end up being a defining issue of the election, because it underscores the narrative of who Democrats and Republicans are, and Democrats are not reflecting who America is."
But it's not just Democrats who are running into party-on-party disagreements. Republican congressional candidate Chris Gibson (NY) said on his Facebook page that "churches, synagogues and mosques should be treated the same" and that the mosque has a right to exist under the Constitution. That statement is no longer available, but Gibson later posted another statement clarifying his opposition to the mosque. Perhaps it's no coincidence since House Minority leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, a staunch opponent of the mosque location, is set to appear with Gibson at a fundraising event on Friday.
Sabato says there's an easy explanation as to why both parties are walking back their comments. "They were politically stupid," he says.
After all, politics and religion don't mix.