G.O.P. ‘Super PAC’ Weighs Hard-Line Attack on Obama
By JEFF ZELENY and JIM RUTENBERG
WASHINGTON — A group of high-profile Republican strategists is working with a conservative billionaire on a proposal to mount one of the most provocative campaigns of the “super PAC” era and attack President Obama in ways that Republicans have so far shied away from.
Timed to upend the Democratic National Convention in September, the plan would “do exactly what John McCain would not let us do,” the strategists wrote.
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 group suggested hiring as a spokesman an “extremely literate conservative African-American” who can argue that Mr. Obama misled the nation by presenting himself as what the proposal calls a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln.”
A copy of a detailed advertising plan was obtained by The New York Times through a person not connected to the proposal who was alarmed by its tone. It is titled “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good.”
The proposal was presented last week in Chicago to associates and family members of Mr. Ricketts, who is also the patriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs.
Brian Baker, president and general counsel of a super PAC called the Ending Spending Action Fund, said Mr. Ricketts had studied several advertising proposals in recent months and had not signed off on a specific approach to taking on Mr. Obama.
“Joe Ricketts is prepared to spend significant resources in the 2012 election in both the presidential race and Congressional races,” Mr. Baker said in an interview Wednesday. “He is very concerned about the future direction of the country and plans to take a stand.”
The document makes clear that the effort is only in the planning stages and awaiting full approval from Mr. Ricketts. People involved in the planning said the publicity now certain to surround it could send the strategists back to the drawing board.
But it serves as a rare, detailed look at the birth of the sort of political sneak attack that has traditionally been hatched in the shadows and has become a staple of presidential politics.
It also shows how a single individual can create his own movement and spend unlimited sums to have major influence on a presidential election in a campaign finance environment in which groups operating independently of candidates are flourishing.
Should the plan proceed, it would run counter to the strategy being employed by Mitt Romney’s team, which has so far avoided such attacks. 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.
Mr. Ricketts has become an increasingly active player in Republican politics through several political action committees, including Ending Spending. He has a son, Pete, who is a member of the Republican National Committee from Nebraska and a daughter, Laura, who is a top contributor to Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign. She has not been involved in her father’s political efforts.
The 54-page proposal was professionally bound and illustrated with color photographs, indicating that it is far beyond a mere discussion. The strategists have already contacted Larry Elder, a black conservative radio host in Los Angeles, about serving as a spokesman, and the plan calls for a group of black business leaders to endorse the effort. The strategists have also registered a domain name, Character Matters.
The proposal suggests that Mr. Ricketts believes the 2008 campaign of Senator John McCain erred in not using images of Mr. Wright against Mr. Obama, who has said that the pastor helped him find Jesus but that he was never present for Mr. Wright’s politically charged sermons. Mr. Obama left the church during the campaign.
Apparently referring to a Wright ad that was produced for the McCain campaign by Mr. Davis’s firm but never used, the proposal opens with a quote from Mr. Ricketts: “If the nation had seen that ad, they’d never have elected Barack Obama.”
The planning document is emblazoned with the logo of Strategic Perception, the political advertising firm of Mr. Davis, the colorful Republican operative who last worked on the Republican presidential campaign of former Gov. Jon M. Huntsman of Utah. Included on his “Recommended Team of Pirates” are the former Huntsman pollster Whit Ayres and the McCain campaign Internet strategist Becki Donatelli.
The document, which was written by former advisers to Mr. McCain, is critical of his decision in 2008 not to aggressively pursue Mr. Obama’s relationship with Mr. Wright. In the opening paragraphs of the proposal, the Republican strategists refer to Mr. McCain as “a crusty old politician who often seemed confused, burdened with a campaign just as confused.”
“Our plan is to do exactly what John McCain would not let us do: Show the world how Barack Obama’s opinions of America and the world were formed,” the proposal says. “And why the influence of that misguided mentor and our president’s formative years among left-wing intellectuals has brought our country to its knees.”
The plan is designed for maximum impact, far beyond a typical $10 million television advertising campaign. It calls for full-page newspaper advertisements featuring a comment Mr. Wright made the Sunday after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “America’s chickens are coming home to roost,” he said.
The plan is for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., to be “jolted.” The advertising campaign would include television ads, outdoor advertisements and huge aerial banners flying over the convention site for four hours one afternoon.
The strategists grappled with the quandary of running against Mr. Obama that other Republicans have cited this year: “How to inflame their questions on his character and competency, while allowing themselves to still somewhat ‘like’ the man becomes the challenge.”
Lamenting that voters “still aren’t ready to hate this president,” the document concludes that the campaign should “explain how forces out of Obama’s control, that shaped the man, have made him completely the wrong choice as president in these days and times.”
Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, National, of Thursday, May 17, 2012.