The Ricketts Plan’s Plans
Last week, a document now known as “The Ricketts Plan” was leaked to the New York Times. The plan—a proposal to a right-wing Super PAC funded by TD Ameritrade founder and Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts—details a $10 million anti-Obama advertising campaign that its authors claim will fundamentally transform the public’s perception of President Obama. The proposed ads would prominently feature Reverend Jeremiah Wright and claim that the anti-American worldview President Obama supposedly received from Reverend Wright is the explanation for all the perceived shortcomings of the Obama administration. The campaign is premised largely on the belief that John McCain—in the authors’ words, “a crusty old politician who often seemed confused”—failed to properly exploit the issue of Reverend Wright in the 2008 campaign.
Reaction to the leaked proposal was swift. The Obama campaign quickly began fundraising off the issue. Mitt Romney repudiated the plan, though he felt the need to make clear that the real problem is the “campaign of character assassination” perpetuated by, rather than against, the president. Ricketts himself rejected the proposal, claiming it was as “out of keeping with his own political style.”
Read in its entirety, the Ricketts Plan is both tragic and comic. It’s tragic in the level of its vitriol, its fear-mongering, its lamentation that the country is not yet ready to “hate” the president, its dishonesty, and as an example of something I’ve written about before—conservatives’ strategy of exploiting racial resentment while at the same time claiming to be victimized by the left’s obsession with race (p. 41: “The instant response liberals give to any attack is to deem the attack as racist.”)
The plan is comic in its desperation and delusion. The plan promises to make “a phenomenally powerful argument that’s never been properly exploited” and to have “a devastating impact on the elusive independent. “And yet, reading the script of the proposed video, it merely rehashes the most popular anti-Obama talking points already prevalent in conservative circles—inexperienced, all style and no substance, apologizes and bows to foreign leaders, government takeover of healthcare, greater debt than every other president combined. The ad claims to tie all these points together by presenting them as an outgrowth of Reverend Wright’s teachings, but the logic of this “Jeremiah Explains it All” theory is unclear and unexplained. Further, while the plan’s authors may believe that McCain failed to properly make Reverend Wright a campaign issue, the clips the ads would use are hardly bombshells—Reverend Wright received extensive coverage during the 2008 campaign, and excerpts of his speeches aired around the clock on cable news.
Underlying the plan—and the belief that it could be some kind of gamechanger—is simple faith. Faith that Obama is a terrible and dangerous president, and that IF WE COULD JUST MAKE PEOPLE SEE THE TRUTH they too would agree that Obama is terrible and dangerous. There is no room to consider the possibility that the majority of the country has considered the evidence and concluded that President Obama, if not the greatest president, is a decent and well-meaning guy. That conclusion is so far from the fevered vision of President Obama circulated in conservative circles that it can only be the result of a failure of information. The media and the McCain campaign didn’t do the job, but take $10 million from Joe Ricketts and the right combination of words and images, and suddenly everyone will see that the right has been correct all along.
I still contend that, at its heart, the strength of anti-Obama sentiment is mostly about the disbelief that someone like President Obama—non-white, foreign-sounding, urban, intellectual—could become president. In that regard, there’s an interesting contrast with the animosity liberals felt toward George W. Bush. Putting aside the substance of the complaints against our two most recent presidents—I would vehemently reject, for example, any suggestion that the health care bill justified the same level of anger as the Iraq War, but that’s an argument for another time—the more superficial aspects of the contempt each president received from his critics are also very different. President Bush was of a type—white male, child of privilege, aggressively Christian—that many liberals are inclined to distrust and/or dislike. But liberals’ anger over the Bush presidency was never driven by surprise or fear that a person fitting those qualities could become president. Quite the opposite—liberals were angry in part because it seemed so easy and so predictable for someone with Bush’s background to become president, regardless of his individual qualifications.
Republicans are probably better off that the Ricketts Plan appears to be going nowhere. Fooling themselves into believing that independent voters will start seeing President Obama the same way Rush Limbaugh’s listeners do is not a winning strategy. For the rest of us, it’s a useful distillation of the conservative worldview in the age of Obama, the hard to explain but firmly held belief that every aspect of the Obama presidency can be explained by some shadowy un-Americaness.