View from Australia: Can the GOP turn America against Obama?

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

18 May 2012

Rickets Plan

The New York Times reports that a group of Republican strategists bankrolled by billionaire Joe Ricketts is putting together a devastating and well-funded ad campaign designed to defeat President Barack Obama this November. The details of the plan:

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.

The $10 million plan, one of several being studied by Mr. Ricketts, includes preparations for how to respond to the charges of race-baiting it envisions if it highlights Mr. Obama’s former ties to Mr. Wright, who espouses what is known as “black liberation theology.”

The scheme is, according to the Times, still in preliminary stages, and Ricketts is yet to approve it. Which is lucky, because as currently consituted, I'm missing the part where it's brutally effective. Jeremiah Wright? Again?

Yet this seems to be a pattern running through Republican attempts to unseat Obama this campaign season. Conservatives are convinced that the President was given a free pass by a napping media in the 2008 campaign. They believe he was insufficiently vetted, and that both reporters and the campaign of Republican nominee John McCain failed to draw the public's attention to parts of Obama's biography that the right considered troubling. After three years in office and with two books penned by the President readily available in stores across the United States, many on the right are still firmly convinced that Obama is a mystery man about whom the American public knows little.

If that is true, the Ricketts Plan makes a lot of sense. If Obama only won election because he successfully hid from the public his dangerous radicalism, then the revelation of his genuine self should be a crippling blow this November.

As I've mentioned before, conservatives see their president rather differently to the rest of the country. Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum neatly encapsulated the divide in a 2011 article published in New York:

Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system ... Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat.

The problem for Republicans is that their supporters seem to want them to run against the Obama of their imagination, not the man whom they actually must defeat in less than six months time. This is a commercial put out by a right wing group called Veterans for a Strong America criticising Obama for claiming too much credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden:

Karl Rove endorsed the commercial. The founder of Veterans for a Strong America said he wanted it to be the "swift boating" of Obama. Dave Weigel, however, didn't see the power:

The argument is that Obama, having ordered the OBL operation, does not have the right to brag about it. Only the SEALs do. And they would never brag. It's a kind of "stolen valor" theory. Except... the commander-in-chief isn't stealing valor when he talks about a mission he ordered. That's what "commander-in-chief" means. The average American who fist-pumped at the OBL news had much less to do with the operation than Obama. I'd doubt he/she feels guilty and wants to take back the "USA!" or the "wooooo!" into the TV camera.

In a different post, Weigel conjectured "This must be why the Obama campaign celebrates Christmas every day that the media discusses OBL — it drives Bush loyalists absolutely insane when they realize Obama gets the credit [for the killing]." The Veterans for a Strong America commercial makes a lot of sense in this light: it might not be persuasive, but for anyone who thinks the President is claiming a victory not rightfully his, the ad's a salve for those hurt feelings.

This is the problem with the penny-ante conspiracy theories and sideshows occupying the more unkempt end of the Republican right: they really want to believe them. It's much easier to buy into the idea that Obama is a dog-eating, birth certificate–faking, affirmative action–reliant fraud than it is to accept that Americans voted for the guy because they liked him, and that many of them still think he's a decent guy.

And Americans do like Obama. He's more popular than the economic fundamentals would suggest he should be, for a start. But that doesn't mean voters will automatically give him another term. A whole lot of Americans are receptive to arguments they should turf their president out of office. Zeke Miller, for instance, pinpoints one area on which the White House hasn't settled on a decisive message:

The Obama campaign is struggling between two themes on the economy — that of an insurgent candidate trying to change the system, and of a successful incumbent who can run on his record.

A weaker than expected employment report Friday only deepened Obama’s quandary: Is the incumbent promising change? Or more of the same?

“They really want to be either ‘Hope and Change’ or ‘Morning in America,’" said Matt McDonald, a former Bush and McCain operative, now a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies. “But now as the incumbent and with three quarters of Americans thinking we're still in recession, they can't really run either of those campaigns.”

That confusion is a real opening for the Romney campaign, if only they will take it. And they would like to; as the Times article says,  "The Romney campaign has sought to focus attention on the economy, and has concluded that personal attacks on Mr. Obama, who is still well liked personally by most independent voters surveyed for polls, could backfire." But conservatives don't want to just win the presidency, they want to beat the man whom they've loathed so viscerally for the past three years. That's why they're churning out strategy booklets premised on the idea that a man who Americans see on TV every day, one of the best known men in the world, is an enigma. But to win this election, conservatives will have to make their pitch to other voters — not just each other. 

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