Some Republicans still believe that if John McCain had wielded the incendiary Rev. Jeremiah Wright against Barack Obama in 2008, he might have been elected president. But a fierce backlash Thursday after the New York Times revealed a GOP super PAC was revisiting the possibility of using Wright in anti-Obama ads may have been the final nail in the coffin for that line of attack.
The Times detailed how a Republican billionaire and a group of strategists were mulling a multimillion-dollar ad campaign connecting Obama to the controversial reverend to be unleashed just before the Democratic National Convention. The Times report quickly had the Republican establishment running scared, denouncing the plan and insisting it was never being seriously considered, all before the West Coast had even woken up.
According to the report, conservative billionaire Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade, was reviewing a proposal to attack president Obama by playing up his connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose controversial statements Obama disavowed on the campaign trail in 2008.
“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,” read the proposal, which included hiring an “extremely literate conservative African-American” as a spokesman and intended to paint Obama as a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln.” The $10 million plan — called “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good” — would be financed by Ricketts, through the super PAC Ending Spending Action Fund.
The idea, the plan stated, was to do “exactly what John McCain would not let us do” in 2008. But the Romney campaign said it didn’t want to go that route, either.
Early Thursday, Mitt Romney’s evasive comments on the report seemed to suggest Romney would not rule out future attacks involving Wright. Asked about the Times story, by the Los Angeles Times’s Maeve Reston, Romney said only that he hadn’t “read the papers yet.”
Romney’s campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, had read the paper, and moved to quash the growing uproar and turn the tables on Obama. “It’s clear President Obama’s team is running a campaign of character assassination,” he said. “We repudiate any efforts on our side to do so.” Soon, the Obama campaign had released a statement decrying Romney’s tepid response during a “moment that required moral leadership.”
Romney clarified soon after, to the conservative site Townhall, that he too “repudiate[d]” efforts like the one outlined in the Ricketts proposal. “I repudiate the effort by that PAC to promote an ad strategy of the nature they’ve described.”
Other Republicans stepped forward to denounce the plan.
“Senator McCain is very proud of the campaign he ran in 2008. He stands by the decisions he made during that race and would make them again today if he had it to do over,” a spokesman for the Arizona senator said.
By noon Thursday, the very people considering the “Ricketts Plan” had sworn it off and downplayed the episode.
The super PAC funded by Ricketts issued a statement on his behalf, saying the plan was off the table:
Joe Ricketts is a registered independent, a fiscal conservative, and an outspoken critic of the Obama Administration, but he is neither the author nor the funder of the so-called “Ricketts Plan” to defeat Mr. Obama that The New York Times wrote about this morning. Not only was this plan merely a proposal - one of several submitted to the Ending Spending Action Fund by third-party vendors - but it reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects and it was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take.
Ricketts, the statement said, will focus his political efforts “entirely on questions of fiscal policy, not attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally.”
Fred Davis, the famous Republican adman who’s firm, Strategic Perception Inc., was behind the proposal, also said the plan was never in the works in a statement to TPM. The “Ricketts family never approved it, and nothing has happened on it since the presentation,” Davis said.
So what does it mean that the Wright trial balloon came crashing down so quickly? The Republican establishment might have learned that personal attacks on Obama, who is well-liked, might be more trouble than they’re worth.
Mark Salter, an adviser to McCain in 2008, told ABC News Thursday that the “Ricketts Plan” would backfire. “I suspect this was leaked by someone who wants to stop it from happening,” Salter said. Any day not spent on Obama’s economic record, Salter said, is a day wasted.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.