The Right's Peculiar Obsession With Jeremiah Wright

If there was a time to play the Jeremiah Wright card it was in 2008.

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Rev. Jeremiah Wright
Rev. Jeremiah Wright in Washington, D.C.

It's often said that generals have an unfortunate tendency to fight the last war. Judging by a leaked "super PAC" ad campaign apparently being contemplated against President Obama, some Republican political strategists have the same problem. After nearly four years of an Obama presidency, they're still fixated on Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

According to a report in Thursday morning's New York Times, a super PAC called the Ending Spending Action Fund was contemplating a proposal for an ad campaign timed to hit during the Democratic National Convention which would focus on Wright. (In light of the publicity around the proposal, the group has reportedly decided against the ad campaign.)

According to the Times's Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg:

The plan, which is awaiting approval, calls for running commercials linking Mr. Obama to incendiary comments by his former spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose race-related sermons made him a highly charged figure in the 2008 campaign.

"The world is about to see Jeremiah Wright and understand his influence on Barack Obama for the first time in a big, attention-arresting way," says the proposal, which was overseen by Fred Davis and commissioned by Joe Ricketts, the founder of the brokerage firm TD Ameritrade. Mr. Ricketts is increasingly putting his fortune to work in conservative politics.

Even if the ads will never run, the proposal reflects a fantasy that has been nurtured in some more fervent conservative circles—that Wright was the ace never played against Obama, that if only Sen. John McCain had run a Wright-centric campaign four years ago, we’d be enduring, err, enjoying a McCain-Palin administration right now. Given both the broader 2008 context (a crashing economy) and the nature of Obama’s appeal (post-partisan and optimistic), it’s dubious whether a fear-mongering, arguably race-baiting ad campaign that painted issue No. 1 as something other than the economy would have gotten any traction.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

This is reinforced by the fact that Wright was not the invisible man that rabid conservatives seem to think he was. Neither his rhetoric nor his relationship with Obama was a particular secret. He got wall-to-wall media coverage to the point where Obama gave a high profile speech addressing his inflammatory, unacceptable rhetoric. Within two days the speech had been clicked on 1.6 million times on YouTube, making it the most popular video on the site. And in late October an independent GOP group spent millions running Wright-centric ads in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, all states which Obama ended up winning. To suggest that the American people didn't know about Wright is to suggest that the American people are fools.

But really that's what the really obsessive Obama-haters seem to think: The American people aren't smart enough to see Obama for what he is. They seem to view Wright as the magical prism which will finally allow the main stream of American voters to see Obama the same way they do—as, in the words of Colorado GOP Rep. Mike Coffman, "in his heart … not an American." (Coffman, who made the comment in the context of avowing ignorance of whether the president was actually born here, was later forced to retract his statement.)

Of course we’re not discussing whether the McCain campaign should have focused on Wright four years ago. The question today is whether the running a flight of Wright-focused ads would help Mitt Romney in November or merely scratch an itch peculiar to an especially obsessive subsection of the conservative coalition.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

The Romney campaign came up with their answer to that question, issuing a statement today saying that they “repudiate any efforts” at character assassination. Team Romney understands something that Wright-aholics seem blinded to: If there was ever a time to play the Jeremiah Wright card it was in 2008. Obama’s no longer an ill-defined figure in the eyes of the American public—we’ve lived with the man for four years now. People will vote for him based on his policies and how he’s handled the office, not on some wild-eyed conspiracy theory about his secret un-American-ness.

And to the extent the proposed ad tries to connect the dots that the histrionic reverend is responsible for a radical president with a fundamentally different view of America, it stretches credulity. As MSNBC's "First Read" noted this morning, "While we know that there are conservatives who want to portray Obama as a socialist tied to people who hate America, his actual record over the past four years—championing legislation that once had GOP support (stimulus, health-care reform, even cap-and-trade) and killing Osama bin Laden—doesn't back-up the conspiratorial narrative portrayed in this plan." (Indeed the surest way to bring an end to the free market system as America knows it would have been to let matters run their course: No TARP so the financial system would collapse; no bailout for the auto industry; no oversight of Wall Street, ensuring that self-absorbed barons of finance would rinse and repeat.)

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The proposed ads will not air, cooler heads apparently having prevailed. If Ricketts had pulled the trigger on this plan, he would ironically be playing out one conservative talking point scenario: What is bad for America (specifically in regard to degradation of political discourse) would have proved to be good for Obama (as swing voters roll their eyes at the GOP’s apparent over-the-top obsession with irrelevancies).