Word that a conservative super-PAC was contemplating an ad campaign, to the tune of up to $10 million, attacking President Obama’s association with Jeremiah Wright has generated plenty of buzz. It now appears, however, that no such campaign is forthcoming. The PAC that was considering this approach, the Ending Spending Action Fund of billionaire Joe Ricketts, says that, although the idea was put forth as a possible direction to take, it has been rejected. The PAC will focus its efforts on “entirely on questions of fiscal policy, not attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally.”
This decision is in line with a broad consensus that a Wright-based attack on Obama wouldn’t work and might even be counter-productive. For example, Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post argued that “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.” Meanwhile conservatives argued, reasonably enough, that by now the issue is what Obama has done in office, not what he might be expected to do based on his choice of churches. They also urged super-PACS to focus more or less exclusively on the economy, as Ricketts’ group has now decided to do.
There’s no doubt that this election will be about Obama’s performance as president, especially when it comes to economic matters. So clearly, this is where the focus should be when it comes to campaign ads. But it also matters whether Obama is liked. And, to the extent we can trust voter responses in surveys on this matter, many more of them like Obama than are satisfied with his performance. Indeed, it may be his likeability that is keeping the president afloat these days.
Thus, there is something to be gained from any honest line of attack that makes voters like Obama less. Moreover, we know that Mitt Romney will be attacked on personal grounds ranging from his religion to his conduct in high school. To the extent voters are reminded (or informed for the first time) that Obama’s spiritual leader is an avowed hater of America, they may be less inclined, considering the alternative, to reject Romney because he is a Mormon or for reasons of his personality, past or present.
Accordingly, I think there may be value in talking about the Obama-Wright connection. Obviously, Romney shouldn’t (and won’t) talk about it, just as Obama won’t be the one talking about Romney’s religion. Nor should this be a priority for PACs. But it’s a line of attack they should not rule out. Of course, if newer inflammatory material comes to light, then it should move ahead of Rev. Wright in the queue.
The Obama-Wright line of attack does not depend on a connection to any policy Obama has implemented. What is the connection between Romney’s alleged bullying as a high school student and any policy? Having an avowed America-hater as one’s spiritual leader should tend to make one less liked, period. The suggestion by the Ending Spending Action Fund that this is an “attack that seek[s] to divide us socially or culturally” is ridiculous.
But the Obama-Wright connection becomes toxic if it can be tied to policy. Here, it may be possible to juxtapose Wright’s anti-Israel ravings with Obama’s hostility to Israel, which is surely a potential weakness for Obama.
We need not speculate, however, about whether there is mileage to be obtained through Rev. Wright and, if so, how best to obtain it. This is something that can be tested in focus groups. My pitch is that the issue be tested (if it has not been), rather than dismissed out of hand as old news. If Obama’s best defense is (1) I repudiated Wright when I ran for president and (2) this stuff shouldn’t be “re-litigated,” then there is no reason to back off the issue without testing it.