Republicans on Sunday criticized President Obama for comments about a proposed mosque near New York’s ground zero, suggesting that the matter will escalate into a significant campaign issue leading into the November midterm elections.
The president made his remarks at a Friday Ramadan service, but he quickly clarified them Saturday, undermining backers of the project who had cheered what they thought was White House support and prompting Republican accusations that Mr. Obama is prone to bad judgment.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday” that Mr. Obama’s comments show that he “seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America” and “that’s one of the reasons people are so frustrated.”
Democrats on Sunday defended the president and the mosque project by invoking typically Republican themes: freedom of religion, local control and the sanctity of property rights.
“Government has no right and no business to comment one way or the other on whether a church or a synagogue or a mosque should be anywhere, so long as they meet the legal requirements,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, said on the same show that it was wrong for national lawmakers to politicize a local New York City issue.
“It’s up to the people of New York. … They are obviously the folks who are right there at the site of the attack of 9/11,” said Mr. Van Hollen, who is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ fundraising arm.
Mr. Cornyn, who is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the fundraising arm of Senate Republicans, denied that the controversy about building a mosque close to ground zero is about freedom of religion.
“We all respect the right of anyone to worship according to the dictates of their conscience,” he said. “But I do think it’s unwise … to build a mosque at the site where 3,000 Americans lost their lives as a result of a terrorist attack.”
Mr. Cornyn added that while the issue “is going to be a local decision,” the “American people will render their verdict.”
The Texan also suggested that the gap between the populace - which overwhelmingly opposes the mosque project - and the support it gets from Washington Democrats will play into a theme that the nation’s coastal elites look down on and lecture the population.
“Whether you’re listening [to the people] or whether you’re lecturing to them, I think this is sort of the dichotomy that people sense - that they’re being lectured to, not listened to. And I think that’s the reason why a lot of people are very upset with Washington,” he said.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, called the proposed mosque an “overriding issue” heading into the November congressional elections.
Mr. McCarthy, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, also questioned why the president is speaking publicly about a New York issue he has no power to control.
“Why isn’t the president spending the time debating about jobs, instead of moving into New York?” said Mr. McCarthy, the House Republican chief deputy whip. “Why is he so insensitive about this area?”
The president had stayed out of the steadily brewing controversy regarding the proposed mosque and community center being planned by the Cordoba Project.
But while speaking Friday during a White House gathering to observe the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, he said that “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.”
“That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances,” he said. “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”
Mr. Obama’s words also were interpreted, especially by his liberal allies, to mean that he supported the building of the proposed $100 million Islamic community center two blocks from where Muslim hijackers slammed two commercial airliners into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a big supporter of the project, quickly applauded Mr. Obama’s words as a “clarion defense of the freedom of religion.” The three major New York City daily papers - the Times, the Post and the Daily News - and the Associated Press all reported that Mr. Obama had endorsed the mosque.
But on Saturday, the president amended his words by saying that he wasn’t commenting “on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there.”
“I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding,” Mr. Obama said.
That word choice had Mr. McCarthy scoffing Sunday at the notion that the president had merely made a generic point about religious freedom with no necessary application to the New York controversy.
“But if you listen what he first said, he brought up the exact location and said he supported it,” he said.
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, accused the president of “trying to have it both ways.”
“I don’t know of anyone who was saying that Muslims do not have the right to practice their religion, but with rights go responsibilities, and that’s the part of it the president did not comment on,” he said on “State of the Union.”
He also noted that Mr. Obama is “a gifted speaker” and “a tremendous communicator” whose Friday night words “were carefully chosen,” leading Mr. King to conclude that the president had simply backed off on what he really thought once the political winds began to blow.
“All I can think is perhaps there was political pressure from people in his own party who urged him to walk back away from that on Saturday. … If the president was going to get into this, he should have been much more clear, much more precise, and you can’t be changing your position from day to day,” he concluded.
Mr. King said New York City’s Muslim leaders should heed public opinion and halt the project.
“If the imam and the Muslim leadership in that community is so intent on building bridges, then they should voluntarily move the mosque away from ground zero,” he said. “This is such a raw wound, and they are just pouring salt into it.”
The Cordoba Project, which is named after a Spanish city that was at the height of civilization under Muslim rule in the early medieval period, has said it chose the location two blocks from the ruins of the World Trade Center in order to put a different face on Islam from the one being pushed by Osama bin Laden and his Islamist allies.
Democrats on Sunday defended the president, saying the legal matters, many of which have been cleared, exhausted the words that politicians should say. When pressed by CNN host Candy Crowley whether it would be good if the Cordoba Project moved the mosque voluntarily, Mr. Nadler demurred.
“I am not going to comment on that, because I don’t think it’s proper for any government official to pressure them in any way. And if I were to say that I think it’s a good idea for them to do it, since I am a government official, that would be government pressuring them,” he said.
Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, said on “Fox News Sunday” that Mr. Obama was “right to point out that our traditions do embrace tolerance for religions - all religions.”
“We’re sending young majors and Army, Marines, Special Forces people into [Afghan] villages to try to find common ground with Muslims,” he said. “If we can’t do that here in the United States, then we’re going to have a very difficult time over there.”
Mr. Reed added that the issue of building the mosque and community center “is one that’s going to be decided by local authorities.”
But Mr. King said that government officials “have the right to speak out.”
“I don’t believe there is a role for the government as far as taking any administrative or executive or legislative action,” he said. “But I do believe that [this] is, as the president calls, a teachable moment.”