In the dustup over Rudy Giuliani saying he doesn't believe that the president loves America, it's a tossup who deserves more to be sent to the woodshed, him or the fellow Republicans who rushed to justify his remark.

The man once called "America's mayor" after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on his city has run for cover. He says now he didn't intend to question President Obama's "motives or the content of his heart" in disagreeing with his nuanced views on American exceptionalism.


But in his original comment, Mr. Guiliani also said of Mr. Obama: "He doesn't love you. And he doesn't love me. He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of his country." The remark could be taken as a reference to Mr. Obama's racial background; he was born to a white mother and black father.

Mr. Giuliani later insisted to the New York Times, "Some people thought it was racist -- I thought that was a joke, since he was brought up by a white mother, a white grandfather, went to white schools and most of this he learned from white people." Some joke.

Since then, Giuliani has tried to soften the blow, saying of Mr. Obama, "I bear him no ill will, and in fact think that his personal journey is inspiring and a testament to much of what makes this country great." Later, he backed off even more, telling Bloomberg News, "If I could express it more clearly, what I mean is he doesn't express it," presumably his love of country.

Mr. Giuliani said he was speaking for himself, but a number of other prominent Republicans who have their eyes on the party's 2016 presidential nomination have jumped into the fray, not rebuffing his remark but piling on with more Obama-bashing. In doing so, they have invited voters to conclude they see nothing wrong with Rudy's smear.

One Republican hopeful who was on hand at a dinner at which Mr. Giuliani expressed his belief, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, was peppered with press questions at a National Governors Association conference here over the weekend. At first he stonewalled, telling the Associated Press: "You should ask the president what he thinks about America. I've never asked him, so I don't know."

Later, Mr. Walker told the Washington Post: "I don't know. I've actually never talked about it, or I haven't read about it. I've never asked him about it." Then he pivoted to Washington and press bashing: "To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington, and increasingly they dislike the press." As for Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Walker told CNBC: "The mayor can speak for himself. I'm not going to comment on what the president thinks or not. He can speak for himself as well."

Not all the prospective 2016 Republican presidential aspirants displayed that version of profiles in courage. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has declared he will not run with the pack, put out a statement that he "doesn't question President Obama's motives. He does question President Obama's disastrous policies." It was hardly a rebuke of Mr. Giuliani, but at least he didn't join the "doesn't love America" pile-on. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said flat-out "I believe the president loves America," while adding: "I think his ideas are bad." Fair enough.

Also heard on Mr. Giuliani's comment was Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who has made a career of Obama-bashing. He said on CNN: "I think we should thank him" for bringing the debate back to the issue of national security, which Mr. Giuliani had not done.

In all, these and other Republicans, instead of seizing the chance that Mr. Giuliani gave them to disavow his bizarre allegation, chose instead to further muddy their party's brand as a pack of Obama-haters, developed zealously over the previous six years.

Mr. Giuliani's sucker punch should encourage some other Republican politicians beyond Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio to declare such dishonorable tactics off limits between now and the next presidential election. With lame-duck Obama on the way out in any event, they'd be better served telling voters what they'll do if they recapture the Oval Office in 2016.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.