Why a Jeremiah Wright attack (probably) won’t work

at 12:00 PM ET, 05/17/2012

The news that a conservative super PAC is contemplating an attack on President Obama’s association with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright has lit the political world on fire. (You can read the full document here.) But there’s plenty of reason to think such an attack simply wouldn’t work.


FILE - In this March 25, 2012 file photo, Rev. Jeremiah Wright speaks in Jackson, Miss. A super PAC working to defeat President Barack Obama is preparing an ad campaign highlighting Obama's ties to his former pastor. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)
The main one? People like President Obama personally and it’s hard to imagine an assault on someone he has already repudiated would undermine that basic likability factor.

“I think it may have worked when he was undefined but it will probably be perceived as a low blow by swing voters,” said former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis (R). “And it is all about swing voters. If it ignites our base it also ignites theirs, which is larger.”

Added a senior Republican consultant granted anonymity to speak candidly: “It’s a dicey strategy, and on implementation, it may look like a dumb strategy.”

Before we go further, a little context is in order.

There’s little question that Obama’s connection to Wright proved decidedly problematic for the then Illinois Senator during the 2008 campaign.

After first scolding Wright, who Obama had once described as a spiritual adviser, for some of his comments, the presidential candidate was forced to fully separate from the controversial preacher when Wright’s seemingly anti-American comments came to light.

The hubbub over Wright led Obama to make his much-touted speech on race, which effectively ended the pastor’s role in the primary and general election campaign. (Much more on that below.)

Flash forward to the present day. Not only is Obama far more well-defined than he was when he was running for president four years ago but the last several years have also proven this unquestioned fact: voters like him personally.

In Gallup polling conducted earlier this month, 60 percent said Obama was the more likeable of the two presidential nominees while 31 percent called former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney more likeable.

And in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 56 percent of respondents said they had a favorable opinion of Obama while just 35 percent said the same of Romney.

Attacking Obama on personal matters — and it’s hard to see Wright being anything but that — is, therefore, sketchy strategy. It allows Obama to fight on good ground for him rather than on the shaky ground of defending an economy that still looks decidedly weak.

“Wright is a good irritant, but the economy is poison for Obama,” said Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers. “I’d rather see our allied groups focused on what really matters rather than just have some fun with a sideshow.”

There are other reasons to think a Wright strategy wouldn’t work.

It would allow the Obama team to seize the moral high ground — always a good place to be in politics — and cast Romney as re-litigating the fights of the past rather than looking toward the future.

Witness Obama campaign manager Jim Messina’s statement on the report. He said:

“This morning’s story revealed the appalling lengths to which Republican operatives and SuperPacs apparently are willing to go to tear down the President and elect Mitt Romney. The blueprint for a hate-filled, divisive campaign of character assassination speaks for itself. It also reflects how far the party has drifted in four short years since John McCain rejected these very tactics. Once again, Governor Romney has fallen short of the standard that John McCain set, reacting tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership in standing up to the very extreme wing of his own party.”

While Romney was quick to distance himself from the plans and repudiate any attempt to make Wright an issue, if the attack went forward you can bet Obama and his team would do everything in their power to link the hit to the former Massachusetts governor. And that would be a very bad thing for Romney.

Finally, the proposed expenditure of $10 million might seem like a lot of money — it’s roughly $10 million more than is currently in the Fix bank account — but in the context of a presidential race where hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent it’s nothing.

While you could make the argument that the $10 million is beside the point given the amount of free media an ad on Wright would draw, it’s still hard to imagine such a small media buy genuinely moving the needle in any meaningful way.

Not all Republican strategists we spoke to this morning agreed with the idea that a Wright attack would flop.

While they acknowledged that simply linking Obama to Wright would be cast as a “back to the future” moment that wouldn’t be effective, they insisted that using Wright as a launching pad for a broader questioning of the incumbent’s values could be effective.

As evidence they point to an ad produced by GOP consultant Fred Davis, who also authored the Ricketts plan, but never run by the McCain campaign entitled “Character Matters”:

“One chose to honor his fellow soldiers by refusing to walk out of a prisoner of war camp,” says the ad’s narrator. “The other chose to not even walk out of a church where a pastor was spewing hatred” (Wright’s infamous “not God bless America but God damn America” clip is then played.)

The idea of the ad is that Obama lacks core convictions and is of and for a values system that is fundamentally “other” to most Americans.

Mark Salter, who served as a senior adviser to McCain’s campaign, said that Davis argued in favor of running a Wright ad in 2008 and that “he might have focus grouped one...[though] he would have done it without the candidate’s knowledge.”

Added Salter: “Fred was told the idea was a non starter. McCain was opposed on principle, and was uninterested in its merits as a tactic.”

The question of whether the Wright attack would work — either now or in 2008 — is likely rendered moot by the New York Times report. Those familiar with the plan suggest that its power would have been the element of surprise which, obviously, is now gone.

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