Thursday, May 17, 2012

Campaign ugliness

This might have been a non-story, until the New York Times this morning managed to get hold of what appears to be a pitch for a new Super-PAC video that would stir up the old Jeremiah Wright controversy for the 2012 campaign. Maybe it should still be a non-story, since the man who was supposed to finance this campaign, Joe Ricketts, a Chicago billionaire who started Ameritrade and whose family owns the Chicago Cubs, immediately rejected the idea as soon as it became public, and Mitt Romney himself has repudiated it.

The twists and turns of today's story are still interesting, however, because they reveal the depths of ugliness to which some people might be prepared to sink in the upcoming campaign, as well as some of the unintended consequences of the new Wild West style of political campaigning that the Supreme Court has allowed.  Let's deal with some of the questions that came up about this proposed ad campaign, in turn. First of all, Jeremiah Wright. Seriously, in 2012, does anyone still care? For the record, I'm not a fan of Wright, but it seemed over the top even back in 2008 to make such a big issue out of a few controversial statements by Obama's pastor. I mean, does anyone agree 100% with everything their pastors say in sermons, or follow their pastors like a slave? It also seemed unfair to take Wright's "God damn America" statements so out of context. (If anyone would take the trouble to listen to that entire sermon, they would discover that Wright's message was that governments repeatedly fail us, but God never fails us. Conservative evangelicals and Tea Partiers should have been able to get right on board with the thrust of that sentiment, instead of being so quick to see it as unpatriotic.)

The disturbing thing about dredging up the Reverend Wright controversy, however, lies the attempt to find a sinister pattern in the Obama administration's policies that is supposed to be derived from Wright's supposed anti-Americanism. If political opponents want to attack Obama's stimulus program as wasteful, that's fine. If they want to blame Obama for the entire federal deficit, they can try to make that argument. If they want to criticize the Affordable Care Act, that's fair game. But don't try to argue that Barack Obama advocated these policies because he was a tool of an anti-American preacher. That crosses the line. Critics of President Bush might--and do--argue that his policies wasted trillions of dollars, almost caused our economy to collapse, and made good will for America evaporate around the world. But hardly any of them question his patriotism. Critics of Mitt Romney can make the case that his policies favor the rich, or that he would return us to the same failed ideas that sunk our economy under George W. Bush, but hardly anybody is claiming that Mitt Romney is on a mission sponsored by a strange cult to impose its views on America.

And that's probably one reason Mitt Romney was so quick to repudiate the proposal to use Reverend Wright as a tool of character assassination against President Obama. Romney knows that religion is a potential vulnerability of his probably more than President Obama's. By appearing to take the high road, Romney was doing something else that was clever. He created a false equivalence between the proposed ad attacking the president for his association with Jeremiah Wright, and recent Obama campaign ads attacking Romney's record at Bain Capital. Both of those, in Romney's view, are character assassination. What a minute! Isn't there a difference between talking about someone's actual record and experience, the very thing that Mitt Romney himself trumpets as a qualification for the presidency, and trying to use out-of-context remarks by somebody's pastor to insinuate that the candidate is on a secret mission to destroy the country? Romney would gloss over that gigantic difference. From now on, every time the Obama campaign brings up what Romney actually did at Bain Capital, Romney can say, hey, I took the high road and stayed away from those kinds of base attacks, but now you want to engage in character assassination. Why don't we talk about the issues that really matter to Americans? Clever, as I acknowledged. Fiendishly clever. Maybe Romney won't be the pushover that Obama supporters were hoping for.

Finally, let's talk about the unintended consequences of this type of advertising. It turns out that even for entertaining the idea of creating such a video, the Ricketts family, which by the way includes some staunch supporters of the president as well as the conservative patriarch, is facing some serious fallout in terms of damage to the Ameritrade brand, as well as the possible derailment of the family's plan to renovate Wrigley Field with the help of the State of Illinois. Evidently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was none too happy about the Ricketts family even thinking about engaging in unfair attacks on the president, and doesn't seem likely to become a supporter of those plans. (Not to mention the irony of someone like Joe Ricketts, who decries supposedly wasteful government spending and pork barrel projects seeking the help of a financially strapped state to help upgrade a rich family's pleasure palace.) Maybe one hopeful lesson from this story is that despite Citizens United, corporations that have to care about public opinion, may want to shy away from the worst kinds of negative political advertising.

Finally finally, I'd just like to mention, as is well known, that the president, because he lived on the South Side of Chicago, is of course a White Sox fan, and now even more likely to remain one.

For a non-story, that's a lot to talk about!

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