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Obama and Palin: The Script’s the Same

Imagine how proudly gratified I was this week to scroll through my Twitter feed and discover that Barack Obama and Sarah Palin have so much in common.

On the day that Donald Trump was touring the New Hampshire seacoast by limousine and taking expansive credit for getting the president to release the long form of a birth certificate that proved an already proven fact, both the former governor and the nation’s current chief executive were saying the same thing to their supporters. For goodness’ sake, they pleaded, keep your eyes on the ball.

For the president, this took the form of a stern scolding against all the carnival barking and silliness. For Governor Palin, it took the form of a stern tweet reminding us all to pay attention to what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was going to have to say that day at the Fed’s first-ever news conference.

It’s probably fair to assume that the president and the former governor had different underlying motivations for all this. Mr. Obama, who seemed exasperated by the controversy-that-would-not-die, just wanted to move on. Ms. Palin, who has problems with Obama administration policies that have little to do with 50-year-old events at Kapiolani Hospital, was warning her supporters against losing focus.

Losing focus loses elections. Some angry Obama supporters are mad at the president for even giving the birthers the time of day. But polls showed that an increasing number of people were beginning to let their minds wander. Couldn’t the president end the argument simply by releasing the final document? Play his “trump card,” so to speak?

Politicians read polls, and they remember their recent history. For Democrats, this includes keen recall of how John Kerry dismissed the discredited claims of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and allowed his campaign’s focus to be snatched out from under him.

For Palin and many other Republicans, the birther controversy — coupled with Donald Trump’s uncanny ability to consume all of the airtime in his vicinity — produced a basic political dilemma. In a pre-election year where the GOP field is having trouble gaining traction, how much distraction can Republicans afford?

I was reminded of this basic truth while visiting San Antonio this week. A member of the audience I was addressing wanted to know: why do we cover Donald Trump at all?

I had a surprisingly difficult time answering this question. After all, the PBS NewsHour itself has scarcely covered Trump — or any other unannounced candidate — at all. But we had little choice on Wednesday. Once the president reacted, so did we.

This is, of course, a bit disingenuous. Mr. Trump did not need NewsHour coverage to dominate the headlines in the days and weeks leading up to his New Hampshire visit. And that is exactly the problem if you are Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty or any number of Republicans who are still thinking things over. It’s impossible to know when the air in the media bubble will suddenly give out.

The president wants to talk about the economy, and Medicare and Social Security and jobs. So do the Republicans. The Democrats are anxious about foreign policy and humanitarian intervention. So are the Republicans. And so are American voters.

And that’s why Sarah Palin and Barack Obama may disagree on policy, but for now they seem to be on the same side when it comes to carnival sideshows.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.

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