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Ground Zero Mosque Should Never Have Become A Political Issue

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Forget ridiculous. The “Ground Zero mosque” controversy has forcibly shoved the 2010 elections straight from the sublime, to the irrelevant.

Ignore, for the moment, the politics of the issue, or whether the debate helps Republicans or not in the run-up to November. The fact is that none of our high federal officials, from President Obama on down, ever had any business weighing in on the argument in the first place.

Even most of the mosque’s fiercest opponents recoginize that the mosque, legally, is on firm ground to be built where the developers want, so for federal officials to be taking positions for or against building an Islamic center at a specific location in New York City makes about as much sense as turning the selection of a new judge on American Idol into an election-year issue.

I’m not being facetious. The federal government simply has no more jurisdiction over whether developers can, or should, build an Islamic center at any given location in New York City than they do over a popular TV program. Zoning, building, and land-use are traditionally and historically local issues. To the degree that any elected officials had to address the mosque question at all, it should have been local New York politicians. Mayor Michael Bloomberg did so, and that’s where the official comment should have ended.

To be clear: I fully understand that Ground Zero stirs intense feelings for Americans no matter where they live. I also understand that there is nothing to stop everyday Americans of all political persuasions from forcefully opposing, or supporting, the mosque on talk radio, on blogs, or elsewhere, but in our web-enabled, 24-7 news cycle culture, just because something percolates into a big, national debate doesn’t necessarily mean it is, or should be, a federal or political issue.

That’s the line that got crossed with the mosque question, and it shouldn’t have been. President Obama should never have even mentioned the mosque. His comments amount to a civics lesson, but sitting presidents don’t have the luxury of engaging in such confabulation. An ex-president can parley to his heart’s content, but anything a sitting president says will be parsed for any policy implication, whether he means it or not, so it was simply inappropriate for Obama to go as he did last Friday evening.

The president first commented on the proposed mosque at a dinner celebrating the end of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. If Obama felt he couldn’t attend the dinner without raising the issue somehow because of the context he was in, then he shouldn’t have attended. The president could have, and should have, asked some lower-level White House official to preside over the Iftar dinner.

This is not because I personally think Obama’s position is right or wrong on its merits, or because the politics of it either will help or hurt him. Others are already disecting those dimensions well more than necessary. Rather, it’s simply that what the president — any incumbent president — says carries an outsized weight that didn’t belong here.

For those Americans whose hearts remain stirred by the events of September 11, 2001, there are plenty of issues to debate which are germane to the coming election, such as the war in Afghanistan, Department of Homeland Security spending, and much more, but what sort of building gets constructed in a certain neighborhood in New York isn’t one of them.


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