By Justin Sink - 05/18/12 12:50 AM EDT
A proposal from a GOP-leaning super-PAC to run attack ads against President Obama based on his relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was floated and rejected within hours on Thursday.
Republicans worked quickly to distance themselves from the controversial proposal, prepared for a super-PAC run by billionaire Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts, which advocated spending $10 million on an ad campaign to link Obama and the controversial reverend.
But the reaction was swift and furious from both sides on Thursday, with Obama’s campaign team accusing Mitt Romney of responding “tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership” and GOP strategists suggesting the proposal was a loser for the Republican challenger.
“An ad that just makes you feel good is an indulgence that only dilettantes and amateurs can afford,” said Republican media strategist Rick Wilson, who helped conceive some of the ads critical of Wright during the 2008 campaign. “Right now, the story the voters are moved by, and tuned in to, is the economy. Showing Barack Obama is a staggering failure on the economy moves people more than him lying about his relationship with Rev. Crazypants.”
By Thursday afternoon, Ricketts, the founder of Ameritrade, issued a statement saying he would not pursue the suggested ad campaign, which was first reported by The New York Times.
Whether the proposal was leaked by someone who wanted to get it killed or get it attention, it was the first real example of an outside group driving a news cycle off message for a candidate.
And it’s something that could happen with increasing regularity given that super-PACs have more power than ever in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.
Because federal election law prohibits candidates from direct involvement with these groups, they can do little outside of publicly pleading for the groups to stop.
It also shows how it’s possible for a super-PAC to hurt a candidate it is trying to help and just how little control the party has over such organizations.
“This whole super-PAC issue can be as much of a problem as it is a godsend,” said Republican media consultant Chris Ingram.
Romney, speaking after a campaign event in Jacksonville, Fla., described the super-PAC’s proposal as the “wrong course” for a presidential contest.
“I want to make it very clear that I repudiate that effort. I think it’s the wrong course for a PAC or a campaign,” the presumptive GOP nominee said. “I’ve been disappointed in the president’s campaign to date, which is focused on character assassination. I just think we’re wiser to talk about the issues of the day, what we’d do to get America working again, talk about our respective records.”
Other Republicans also sought to distance themselves from the controversy. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), asked about the report, replied without even mentioning Wright’s name.
“This election is going to be about the economy. The president’s economic policies have failed, [he] can’t run on his record, but the election’s going to be about the economy,” he said. “I don’t know what these other people do or why they do it. All I know is the American people vote with their wallets.”
Meanwhile, McCain — who was criticized by name repeatedly in the super-PAC’s report for avoiding the issue in 2008 — issued a statement standing by his campaign’s strategy.
Ingram noted the proposal was especially troubling because it could interject questions about religion into the political debate — a conversation that Romney, a Mormon, might want to avoid. Romney has mostly avoided discussing his faith, and his involvement in the Mormon Church, while on the campaign trail.
“I don’t think the focus on religion is really where Romney wants to go; some of the polling data shows people have concerns about him being Mormon. It brings up some questions about the Mormon faith, and particularly with evangelical Christians, it reminds that very base of support interested in the Wright story that Romney is of the Mormon faith that a lot of them have a problem with.”
Others noted that Americans were unlikely to dramatically change their personal opinion of a man who has already served as president for three and a half years.
“It’s a baked cake. It’s a done deal,” said Wilson. “People that are uncomfortable with it are already not voting for Barack Obama … Run the ads that work, not the ads you want. This is an ad that won’t work. We don’t have an unlimited amount of luxury and time to push out messages against this guy.”