Donald Trump seems to think the birther issue is great for the GOP. Last year, when Trump was toeing the birther line, trying to get some attention for an upcoming presidential bid, I researched the origin of birther controversies. It seems that questions about President Barack Obama's birth certificate are not the first in American history.
Back in 1880, Democrats tried to ride a birther controversy into the White House, hoping to offset a string of electoral defeats dating back to 1856. But they failed miserably, a warning to modern-day Republicans who think they've finally got an issue to topple Obama.
The controversy back then began when James Garfield put Chester A. Arthur on the ticket. Not long after that, a guy named Arthur Hinman became convinced that Arthur wasn't born in America. Democrats tried to make Arthur's birthplace an important issue in the election. But despite having a strong candidate with a better war record (Winfield Scott Hancock), the Democrats lost a close race they should have won.
How did the birther issue blow up in the Democrats' face? And how could those same factors impact Republicans and Romney in 2012?
1) Deciding On A Real Birthplace: Birthers of 1880 could never seem to get their story straight. Folks claimed that Arthur's birth home was just over the border in Canada. Was he Canadian? Was he British? Some in the movement claimed he was really Irish, which (back then) was supposedly worse than being British or Canadian.
Birther 1.0, version 2008, was that Obama was born in Hawaii before it became a state. After it was pointed out that even if that were the case, John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone, and it had to be revamped. Birther 2.0, version 2009, was that Obama was born in Kenya. After that claim initially fizzled, it seemed advantageous to upgrade to Birther 3.0, version 2010: Obama was born in Indonesia. But now, thanks to a publicity agent's flub, they've rebooted Birther 2.0. Yemen should come up sometime during the election.
2) Ignoring Other Scandals: Arthur didn't have a squeaky-clean past. He had actually been canned in an anti-corruption drive, for putting too many people on the payroll. But by chasing the wild birther claims, this story that was better documented seemed to be left by the wayside. Once in office, after the assassination of Garfield by an angry donor passed over for an appointment, this enabled Arthur to take the high road and sign the "Pendleton Act" of 1883, cleaning up corruption, and wining the admiration of the American people.
Obama also has his scandals and accusations of misconduct. But these will probably barely make a ripple, as local "political science" bookshelves teem with Obama birther books.
3) Ignoring Other Issues: From 1873 to 1879, America faced what turned out to be its longest recession on record. Concerns about tariff policies abounded. Even the bitter 1876 election should have been investigated. Democrats should have emphasized these issues, which were of greater concern to the people than where Arthur's boyhood residence was.
It's not too different from many contemporary concerns about the economy, international policy, and a variety of factors which matter more to the average person, who get knocked from the headlines every time a birther tries to make another publicity splash. It wouldn't surprise me if some Democrat wasn't behind this whole issue!
You'd think the issue would have died down when Obama released his birth certificate, and Trump posted one lacking authenticity. But the Arizona Secretary of State is trying to take Obama off his state's ballot over birther issues. There's also the latest viral email which includes something written by a publicity agent about Obama's background. Each case may sound tantalizing to the opposition party. But then again, so did the original birther controversy of 1880, which led the group espousing such conspiracy theories to its electoral demise.