Everyone is buzzing about theTimes piece today on the plan spearheaded by one Joe Ricketts, CEO of TDAmeritrade, to run a series of television commercials bringing Rev. Jeremiah Wright back to prominence. Reporters Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg got their hands on a storyboard or outline of what the commercials will look like, and to say that the script goes straight for the jugular puts it mildly.
The first question here is whether the biography of a man who has already been president for three-plus years can be, as the experts say, redefined. Obama has had three and a half years to impose Wrightism on the United States and has not done so. Actually, there are people who think he has done so, but they're a minority. As for the majority, can some percentage of them, who basically like Barack Obama and are pulling for him to one degree or another, really be persuaded that he isn't the person they think he is?
I would usually say no. But throw in race, and stuff can get weird. Buttons that sit way down deep in people's psyches, buttons that are usually dormant, can be activated. And it can't be good for Obama to have to walk over those coals again. The question remains, not quite conclusively answered last time, as to how much anti-American stuff Obama actually heard while sitting in Wright's pews.
The fact is that racial fear-mongering has, alas, a pretty impressive record in presidential politics. Nixon's Southern strategy, the Willie Horton ads (yes, yes, first used by Al Gore, but used far more emotionally by the G.H.W. Bush campaign)...these things usually work. So if these ads do get made and aired--apparently still being debated--how should the White House respond?
The best move, it seems to me, would be to move the conversation away from Wright per se--ater all, Barack Obama is not Jeremiah Wright; that is manifestly clear to most Americans--and gather as many testimonials from prominent white business people and such as they can. Also, bin Laden: Does the guy who iced bin Laden really harbor some kind of secret anti-American views? It's absurd on its face, and most people will think so.
There's also the question of what sort of reaction such a campaign would invite. On MSNBC this morning, former Maryland GOP Governor Bob Erlich told Chuck Todd that he thought going in this direction was a mistake--that any day spent not talking about the economy is a wasted day for Mitt Romney. Implicit in that, I think, is a worry that we may be at a historical point where the backlash is greater than the lash.
Willie Horton was 24 years ago. There's a whole new generation of voters who are, however libertarian they may be on some fiscal issues, are very progressive on racial questions. A campaign like this might just make these people more pro-Obama than they would have been otherwise. These are questions the Romney campaign has to think hard about. There may be a reason beyond some internal benevolence that John McCain chose not to go down this road.
In general, though, the combination of the Citizens United decision, the existence of people like Ricketts, and the many unspecified millions washing through the system will make for a hideously nasty campaign. This won't be the only effort that will try to persuade voters that Obama is some kind of Big Bad Other. He'll have to defend some beachheads in this election about who he is that he thought he already held.