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President Obama’s decision last night to defend the right of a group of Muslim businessmen and religious leaders to build a mosque and Islamic cultural center near the Ground Zero site has won praise from some of his harshest critics — and criticism from Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, who seem to be in a competition to see who can stoke the most outrage among the Republican base. Indeed, it was a bold decision — Obama could have stayed out of what is ostensibly a local matter. But a careful evaluation of the polls reveals it to be less politically risky than it might at first appear.

As I pointed out two weeks ago, there has been considerable ambiguity in most polls on the topic, which did not distinguish one’s personal position on the tastefulness of the mosque from one’s view about whether or not the developers had the right to build it:

One’s personal position on the mosque is not necessarily the same as thinking that the City should take affirmative steps to prohibit its construction by eminent domain laws by or other means. […] This is somewhat analogous to asking: “do you support or oppose flag-burning?”. Without additional context, it would be quite natural for someone to say they opposed it, but they might nevertheless consider it to be Constitutionally protected activity.

The only poll to have gotten the distinction right, believe it or not, is the one from Fox News. They asked two separate questions about the planned development. First, they asked:

A group of Muslims plans to build a mosque and Islamic cultural center a few blocks from the site of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City. Do you think it is appropriate to build a mosque and Islamic center near ground zero, or do you think it would be wrong to do so?

Only 30 percent of respondents said “appropriate”, while 64 percent said “wrong” — consistent with the apparent unpopularity of the mosque in other polls.

But Fox also followed up with this question:

Regardless of whether you think it is appropriate to build a mosque near ground zero, do you think the Muslim group has the right to build a mosque there, or don’t they have that right?

Here, the numbers were nearly reversed: 61 percent of respondents, including 69 percent of independents and 57 percent of Republicans, said the developers had the right to build the mosque; 34 percent said they did not.

Essentially, public opinion on this issue is divided into thirds. About a third of the country thinks that not only do the developers have a right to build the mosque, but that it’s a perfectly appropriate thing to do. Another third think that while the development is in poor taste, the developers nevertheless have a right to build it. And the final third think that not only is the development inappropriate, but the developers have no right to build it — perhaps they think that the government should intervene to stop it in some fashion.

Obama’s remarks, while asserting that “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country,” and that the “principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are,” simply reflected the view that the developers had a First Amendment right to proceed with the project — a view that at least 60 percent of Americans share. True, Obama could have hedged a little bit more, by saying something along the lines of “they have every right to build it, but I hope they will consider another location”. On the other hand, it is not as though he said “this is a wonderful thing, and I’m going to make sure to take Sasha and Malia there once it’s built.” Instead, he acknowledged the sensitivity over the Ground Zero site, calling it “hallowed ground”, but couched the controversy in terms of the First Amendment.

So it is not really so clear whether Obama has staked out an unpopular position or not. While it is almost certainly riskier than his remaining mum on the issue, the assertion that the developers have a Constitutional right to proceed with the project is not particularly controversial. Palin and Gingirch will scream and shout, but they may be doing little more than preach to the converted.

EDIT: Sorry for pre-coffee typos.

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