Could all the sound and fury over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero actually be good for Democrats? At least one prominent Republican strategist thinks so, both over the short and the long term.
“It’s the Monica Lewinsky ploy,” says Grover Norquist, a loyal lieutenant to the 1994 Gingrich revolution and president of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist believes that the Ground Zero mosque controversy is distracting from the core 2010 Republican message in the same way that the Monica Lewinsky scandal distracted Republicans in 1998. “The Republican Party is on track to win a major victory in November based on the issue that Democrats are spending the country blind,” Norquist told me Tuesday evening. “There isn’t a single voter in the country that was planning on voting for the Ds, who says, ‘Oh, mosque issue, now I will vote for the Rs.’”
Back in 1998, congressional Republicans were also “distracted by shiny things,” Norquist says, when the Lewinsky scandal began. “They nationalized the election around an irrelevancy,” he said. Republicans lost five House seats that year, despite widespread predictions that they would expand their majority. Furthermore, Norquist argues that by promoting such tangential issue as the mosque, Republicans have given vulnerable Democrats, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a lifeline, allowing him to distance himself from President Obama and the rest of the Democratic Party. “Harry Reid says, ‘Oh, is this a get out of jail free card?’” Grover explained.
Over the long term, Norquist also sees danger for Republicans not just among Muslim voters, but among other religious groups as well. “Religious minorities all go, ‘I get it. This means me too,’” he said. He pointed to a recent story in the Jewish newspaper The Forward, called “When Shuls Were Banned in America,” which draws connections between the current mosque controversy and New York’s history of antisemitism.
“Long term, you could do to the Muslim vote and every other religious minority what Republicans did to the Catholic vote in ‘Rum Romanism and Rebellion,’” Norquist added, using a phrase uttered at a speech attended by Republican presidential candidate James Blaine in 1884, which arguably cost him victory in that election, by alienating Catholic voters.
Such stands are not out of character for Norquist, who has long waged a battle to make the the Republican Party more inclusive of racial and religious minorities. During the Bush Administration, Norquist served as an informal envoy to the American Muslim community. He has also been an outspoken supporter of immigration reform, arguing that it was important that Republicans not alienate Hispanic voters. “Tom Tancredo has done damage to the Republican Party in states he has never visited,” Norquist says, referring to the former Colorado congressman best known for his frequent denunciation of illegal immigration on cable television.
UPDATE: A new Gallup poll suggests that Norquist may be on to something about the mosque issue being a bright shiny distraction. The poll found that while more independent voters strongly disagreed with Obama’s mosque remarks (27 percent) than strongly agreed (15 percent), the response was muted. Only 29 percent of independents said they were “paying a great deal of attention” to the story. Close to half of independents do not have an opinion. Four in ten Americans generally said they didn’t know enough to hazard an opinion. See the poll results here.
UPDATE II: Norquist went on C-Span Thursday to elaborate on this argument. See the video here.