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Why the mosque matters (and why it might not)

President Barack Obama's decision to wade into a debate about whether to allow a mosque to be built in the vicinity of the site of the Sept.11, 2001 attacks in New York City has left many Democratic strategists concerned about the impact it might have on a fall election already looking dismal for their side.

Obama made initial remarks about the importance of religious freedom and tolerance, which were taken by many as an endorsement of the mosque construction, on Friday and then re-visited the topic on Saturday to make clear he was speaking in a general sense and not about any specific project.

"How can this possibly be helpful when feelings are still so raw on the issue?," said a senior Democratic political operative. "It's best to say nothing and let the process and appeals unfold."

A senior Democratic consultant offered this: "He is right on substance but wrong on politics and right now we need to focus on politics."

That sentiment is perhaps the most reflective of where most Democrats charged with keeping majorities in the House and Senate this fall stand; not why but why now?

Democrats have found themselves off the economic message they want to be driving for the better part of the last month -- White House press secretary Robert Gibbs' comments about the House majority being in play, the Shirley Sherrod incident, the ethics charges swirling around Reps. Maxine Waters (Calif.) and Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) -- and with only 11 weeks left before the midterm elections it's hard to sacrifice even a few days here or there, as this mosque controversy will almost certainly do.

(Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stoked the debate earlier today when he said he favored the mosque being built elsewhere.)

"We needed this right now like a hole in the head," said a senior Democratic consultant. "At a time when we need to be playing offense on economics, this puts us back on defense."

The push-back from allies of the White House is that President Obama felt compelled to speak out on the issue, it was the right thing to do and he did it. Political concerns, they argue, were the furthest thing from his mind. (On that point, the White House and party strategists critical of Obama's approach on the issue likely agree.)

Polling would suggest that a focus on the issue is a short-term loser for Democrats this fall.

An Opinion Dynamics poll conducted for Fox News Channel -- the most recent national survey conducted that asked about the mosque -- showed that 64 percent of people think it is wrong to build the mosque so close to Ground Zero -- including 56 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independents.

(Worth noting: That same poll showed that while two-thirds of Americans think it is wrong to build the mosque, a nearly equal 61 percent said the group has the right to build it. And, a look at all of Obama's comments on the matter would seem to suggest that is, in part, where he ultimately came down on the issue; that people have the right to build the mosque while not offering a specific judgment on whether they should or should not.)

A CNN poll conducted earlier this month provided even starker numbers. Sixty-eight percent opposed the idea of putting a mosque so close to Ground Zero; among independents, 70 percent were against it.

The debate over Obama's role in the mosque controversy highlights, yet again, that the White House and Congressional Democrats are operating on two very different political time lines.

For Obama, his position on the mosque is one that, generally, affirms his brand as an above-politics president who eschews political considerations in order to do what he believes is right.

The quotes coming out of the White House over the weekend back up that sense. "He understands the politics of it," Obama senior adviser David Axelrod told the New York Times. "He felt that he had a responsibility to speak."

And, Obama still has more than two years before he stands before voters and seeks a second term. In that time, it's a near-certainty that the mosque issue will be long forgotten -- particularly if the economy doesn't recover at a more rapid pace.

Congressional Democrats, on the other hand, don't have that kind of time. With just 78 days before Nov. 2 and all signs pointing to a very difficult election for their side, the party needs everything to go just right in the final 11 weeks of the campaign.

And, that means a laser-like focus on what the Administration and the Democratic-led Congress have done to save the economy and create jobs and how Republicans have offered little in the way of specific solutions on what they would do if they came back into power.

(Republicans are not without political peril here either. The danger is overplaying their hand, looking like they are politicizing the terrorist attacks. And, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's comments invoking Nazi Germany to describe the supporters of the mosque are already dangerously close to doing just that.)

While there is clearly consternation within Democratic political ranks over the White House's approach to the New York City mosque, it's also worth remembering that it is August in Washington -- meaning that what looks like a mountain today could well be a molehill by November.

"This is in the long tradition of 'August issues' -- things that seem central at the moment during the summer, but doubtful that they will have legs into October, especially when the voters have bigger issues they care about," said a senior party operative.

And, a recent Pew poll showed that less than one in five (19 percent) people were following the mosque story "very closely". While the poll was conducted prior to Obama's remarks on Friday and over the weekend, the numbers suggest that the idea of a nation riveted on the issue is erroneous.

Standing so close to the issue, it's hard to know whether it is a standard-issue tempest in a teapot or a vote-able issue this fall. What is clear is that Democrats are talking about it -- and will likely be doing so for several days to come -- which further delays their preferred pivot to economic issues and blasting Republicans as the party of "no".

By Chris Cillizza  |  August 16, 2010; 1:31 PM ET
Categories:  White House  
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