Is Obama’s name fair game?

Republican leaders, including John McCain, warned supporters not to invoke Barack Obama's middle name, Hussein, to prejudice voters against him, said Jonathan Chait in a New Republic blog, and McCain deserves credit for defining it as "out-of-bounds.

What happened

The Republican National Committee privately rebuked the Tennessee Republican Party for sending out a press release criticizing Democratic presidential contender “Sen. Barack Hussein Obama” for allegedly not supporting Israel. An RNC source said the national party was putting the Tennessee GOP on notice not to use Obama’s Muslim-sounding middle name again. (Politico) On Monday, Republican front-runner John McCain criticized radio host Bill Cunningham’s use of Obama’s middle name in the warm-up to a McCain rally. “John McCain threw me under the bus, under the Straight Talk Express,” Cunningham said. “I’m joining Ann Coulter in supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton.” (USA Today)

What the commentators said

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McCain’s “political courage” is overstated, generally speaking, said Jonathan Chait in The New Republic’s Plank blog. But his repudiation of Cunningham’s comments shows “very decent instincts.” I’d assumed that “Obama’s middle name would be a staple of Republican rhetoric between now and November,” but it seems that “McCain has defined it as out-of-bounds.” He “deserves credit for that.”

It may be decent on McCain’s part, but it’s also good politics, said John Riley in Newsday’s Spin Cycle blog. Even Karl Rove says “it's a mistake for the GOP” to use Hussien. But “this will continue as long as the right thinks Obama and the Democrats—and even McCain—are sensitive to it.” So what does Obama do? “Hussein” is a “very common name of Semitic origin” that means “good” or “handsome.” Does he risk being seen as “hyper-fussy” by attacking people for using it, or can he “make fun of it and demystify it?”

He’d better come up with something, said Christopher Beam in Slate’s Trailhead blog. “Hussein” is a "Who, me?” insult that the GOP is using to “provoke associations with Saddam Hussein or, less explicitly, that whole scary part of the world east of Israel.” But if Republicans can’t use it, who can? Will it be “taboo” for Democratic supporters? Obama might have to deal with his middle name the way Mitt “Romney addressed his Mormonism”—in a speech—or risk becoming “the first presidential nominee whose name is itself a slur.”

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