Don’t go there. That, in essence, is the message Thursday from Mitt Romney, who said he “repudiates” an idea that was reportedly under consideration by an outside GOP group to run ads using the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. to attack President Obama.
But that news came after an explosive reaction across the political spectrum, from both the Romney and Obama campaigns, as well as political strategists and observers. And once again, the issue of race has been injected into the campaign.
During the last presidential campaign, videos of incendiary sermons by Mr. Wright, the president’s former spiritual adviser, came to light. John McCain, the Republican nominee in 2008, refused to make Wright an issue and Mr. Romney, the party’s presumptive nominee this year, is furthering that view.
According to Thursday’s New York Times, Chicago billionaire Joe Ricketts was considering a $10 million ad campaign that would highlight Obama’s former relationship with Wright, who espouses “black liberation theology.” Mr. Ricketts, the founder of TD Ameritrade, and a “super PAC” he supports, the Ending Spending Action Fund, were considering various proposals from a group of high-profile Republican strategists, including this idea.
Midday on Thursday, Brian Baker, president of the Ending Spending Action Fund, released a statement on behalf of Ricketts.
“Joe Ricketts is a registered independent, a fiscal conservative, and an outspoken critic of the Obama administration, but he is neither the author nor the funder of the so-called ‘Ricketts Plan’ to defeat Mr. Obama that The New York Times wrote about this morning,” the statement read.
“Not only was this plan merely a proposal – one of several submitted to the Ending Spending Action Fund by third-party vendors – but it reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects and it was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take,” the statement continued. “Mr. Ricketts intends to work hard to help elect a president this fall who shares his commitment to economic responsibility, but his efforts are and will continue to be focused entirely on questions of fiscal policy, not attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally.”
Earlier in the day, Romney also rejected the proposal.
“I repudiate the effort by that PAC to promote an ad strategy of the nature they’ve described,” Romney told the conservative Townhall web site Thursday. “I would like to see this campaign focus on the economy, on getting people back to work, on seeing rising incomes and growing prosperity – particularly for those in the middle class of America.”
The new world of unlimited spending in support of political campaigns, as sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 2010, has opened the door to increased involvement in politics by wealthy benefactors like Ricketts (whose family owns the Chicago Cubs). He and his super PAC are fresh off an upset victory Tuesday in the Senate GOP primary in Nebraska, in which an underfunded state legislator named Deb Fischer defeated both the Republican establishment and tea party favorites with the help of Ricketts-funded ads.
The Wright proposal would have involved running TV ads around the Democratic National Convention in early September in Charlotte, N.C. The team of strategists presenting the proposal includes former advisers to one-time presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, including adman Fred Davis, according to the Times.
The strategists anticipated charges of race-baiting, and so their plan included “hiring as a spokesman an ‘extremely literate conservative African-American’ who can argue that Obama misled the nation by presenting himself as what the proposal calls a ‘metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln,’ ” the Times reported.
By law, a super PAC is barred from coordinating its activities with the campaign it supports, but that didn’t prevent Romney from making his views clear through the media Thursday. Other Republicans voiced opposition to the plan.
“This has the potential to be a recipe for disaster,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, who worked for the McCain campaign in 2008. “There could be a significant backlash, and that’s not what Romney needs in this tight race.”
The people who might listen to a racially charged argument against Obama are already not voting for him, while independent swing voters could be turned off.
The argument for leaving race out of presidential politics has long been articulated, including by black conservatives. One, author Shelby Steele, made the case a year ago in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal entitled, “Obama’s Unspoken Reelection Edge.”
Mr. Steele argued that Obama’s race gives him a “cultural charisma” that most Republicans cannot have, and that the way to defeat Obama electorally is to go after his performance in office, not his identity.
“There have really always been two Barack Obamas: the mortal man and the cultural icon,” Mr. Steele wrote. “If the actual man is distinctly ordinary, even a little flat and humorless, the cultural icon is quite extraordinary. The problem for Republicans is that they must run against both the man and the myth. In 2008, few knew the man and Republicans were walloped by the myth. Today the man is much clearer, and yet the myth remains compelling.”
Anyone who consults with Steele is likely to advised to steer clear of Jeremiah Wright. It would only enhance the myth.