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'Exactly what John McCain would not let us do'

Speaking of radioactive politics, conservatives lately have been dipping their toes into old controversies lately. Rep.
The front page of the Character Matters PAC's proposal for a five-minute film criticizing the President.
The front page of the Character Matters PAC's proposal for a five-minute film criticizing the President.

Speaking of radioactive politics, conservatives lately have been dipping their toes into old controversies lately. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) remarked in a speech last weekend about President Obama, "in his heart, he's not an American." Coffman apologized once tape surfaced of the speech. The folks at the late Andrew Breitbart's site have the top link on the Drudge Report right now with something about a 21-year-old booklet that says President Obama was born in Kenya. (Nice that the article is prefaced by a lengthy We're Not Birthers!™ disclaimer.)

The more hilarious example is a new "birther" film, “Dreams From My Real Father" (get it?), which among its very outlandish assertions, claims that President Obama's father was a Communist...from Hawaii. (You can imagine why that's confounding the "birthers" out there who kick it old school, and claim that he's from Kenya.)

Conservatives toy with this stuff all the time. But this morning, anyone picking up (or logging into) the New York Times' front page learned that a super-PAC called Character Matters (really) backing presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney was gearing up an effort to get serious using an even older bogeyman: the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

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 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 use of Wright by conservatives in the 2008 campaign is well-remembered as rather overt race-baiting, and this also fits that bill. (Wright didn't help matters when he revealed himself as what I deemed at the time as a "crab in the barrel," turning on the President first with his cartoonish Press Club appearance in April of 2008.)

The juiciest and most hilarious part of the Times piece, bar none, was this:

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.”

Really? They needed a conservative black spokesman, and an "extremely literate" one at that? The jokes write themselves, particularly when they come to phrases like "metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln," which sounds like more of a compliment.

To say the least, the reaction to this has been swift. Republicans were quick to respond negatively, including Romney. As Greg Sargent notes, the fact that Romney himself employed the Rev. Wright bogeyman in a February radio interview didn't stop his campaign today from coming out with a statement that read, in part:

It’s clear President Obama’s team is running a campaign of character assassination. We repudiate any efforts on our side to do so.

(Romney repeated that "repudiation" just now in live remarks, quickly pivoting off of them to attack the President for attacking him. When asked about the fact he'd used the Wright attack himself back in February, Romney claimed he was unable to recall exactly what he'd said -- but he stood by it, "whatever it was.")

You can line both of those statements up next to Romney's "it's not the language I would have used" response to Rush Limbaugh's sexist remarks about Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke. Keep in mind that in 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), for fear of being deemed racist, made it explicit that these sorts of attacks were out of bounds. What Romney has done is considerably softer. Repudiation is the refusal to be associated with something; condemnation is a lot stronger, and what this moment called for, according to the Obama campaign, who called the Romney response "tepid":

"The blueprint for a hate-filled, divisive campaign of character assassination speaks for itself.  It also reflects how far the party has drifted in four short years since John McCain rejected these very tactics. Once again, Governor Romney has fallen short of the standard that John McCain set, reacting tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership in standing up to the very extreme wing of his own party.

A third party leaked the full memo authored by ad man Fred Davis' firm Strategic Perception to the Times; Davis' firm is not only behind this effort, but also is known for other similarly notorious race-baiting ads (see above) for Republican politicians in the past. Whether or not today was an accidental leak, or it was their way of testing the waters, it says a lot that Davis is now walking it back, and that the Ricketts super-PAC is now saying they have no plans to use Rev. Wright in their ads, saying essentially that it was just an idea, calm down, everyone:

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. Mr. Ricketts intends to work hard to help elect a President this fall who shares his commitment to economic responsibility, but his efforts are and will continue to be focused entirely on questions of fiscal policy, not attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally.

You might think that shaming conservatives for race-baiting is why we see statements like that, but Adam Serwer of Mother Jones put out a sharp look at why the tactic simply doesn't work as well as it used to. And you'll want to tune in on Saturday at 10am ET, because Melissa has an incisive take on this controversy that frankly no one is putting forth. We'll see you then.