Having It Both Ways

The furor today over the Times story about what appears to be an RFP by Joe Ricketts encouraging practitioners of the dark arts of campaign advertising to show him the bottom of the barrel of anti-Obama agitprop has been, well, fascinating. By mid-day, the Romney campaign, Ricketts, and even dark-arts master Fred Davis were all repudiating the very idea of talking about Jeremiah Wright.

You get the sense this was a trial balloon that crashed to earth really fast. But it exposes a deeper, chronic problem–or perhaps I should say temptation–for Romney and company, as explained excellently by Greg Sargent earlier today:

The point here, as evidenced by Romney’s repudiation today of the GOP plan to revive Wright, is that leading Republicans know it’s not acceptable to play the race card as overtly as this. As Adam Serwer notes today, it’s basically as crass an exercise in race-baiting as portraying Obama as the “type of black man they cross the street to avoid,” and Republican leaders know this is a nonstarter, morally and politically.

At the same time, large swaths of the GOP base, and even of the conservative commentariat, are heavily invested in a deeply paranoid view of Obama that goes far beyond whether Obama sat in the pews and nodded along with Wright’s anti-American venom.

GOP leaders are very careful to declare Wright off limits, but leading Republican officials and opinionmakers have fed this broader and deeper strain of anti-Obama paranoia for literally years now, in all sorts of ways. By hinting that Obama doesn’t really wish the country well. Or by suggesting that he’s overly sympatheic towards America’s enemies. Or by failing to forcefully condemn birtherism. Or by declaring that they take Obama at his word when he says he’s a Christian. Or by hinting that he’s hostile towards faith and religion.

So in terms of Mitt and the GOP, you can look at this brouhaha three ways:

(1) Romney and company truly do just want to make this election a straightforward referendum on Obama’s management of the U.S. economy, and are horrified that anyone in their ranks would discuss anything else, much less babble about issues left behind in 2008.

(2) Romney and company understand they need to straddle the “base’s” obsession with non-economic issues and the more reputable case presented to swing voters that Mitt’s just a competent job-creator who doesn’t share The Crazy. The former appeal needs to stay under the radar screen as much as possible, and the Ricketts story was about as discreet as a nuclear device. It won’t happen again.

(3) Romney and company want the crazy stuff to get out there as much as possible without being responsible for it. It will happen again and again.

I’d be happy if I could believe proposition (1), but given Mitt’s chronic mendacity and his own strategic recourse to the Dark Side of Obama demonization, I really just can’t. So the remaining question is whether we will see this sort of crap again and again, particularly if the Romney cause flags down the home stretch.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.