Monday, May 21, 2012

Wright is the Wrong Strategy

As with most Americans, I was convinced that Jeremiah would no longer be a political issue after the 2008 election. As with most Americans, I was also wrong, as we have learned that there are still Republicans who wish to use the controversial pastor against Obama in this election cycle. Unfortunately for them, raising Wright will not gain them any political advantage; in fact it may even hurt.

The most obvious reason for this conclusion is that Wright did not prevent Obama from winning last time. On election night 2008, Obama stood victorious with 53% of the vote to 46% for John McCain. After a tumultuous Democratic primary season where Wright’s sermons played often enough that Obama felt compelled to make a major speech on race, a majority of voters did not care enough to stop supporting Obama. In order to be effective, using Wright cannot merely galvanize the Republican base. Obama’s positions on a range of issues including gay marriage, abortion, and spending should accomplish that. To be effective, using Wright must cause at least some voters who supported Obama in 2008 to switch their votes in 2012. That begs an important question: if these voters did not care enough about Wright to change their votes in 2008, why would they all of a sudden care enough to do so in 2012?

Those who want to use Wright have a rather long response. John McCain did not use Jeremiah Wright as an issue during the fall campaign. Moreover, the collapse of the financial system and widespread anxiety about the economy meant that Wright faded in importance for most voters. In other words, Wright would have been a huge burden to Obama in another election cycle. Hence, Wright should be a potent issue this time.

There are two major problems with the preceding objection. First, although McCain may not have used Wright as a campaign issue in the fall, that does not mean that voters were unaware of Wright’s offending sermons. In fact, it would have been difficult for a sentient being who watched television in 2008 not to have heard of Wright, or watched at least one of the controversial clips. It was also painfully obvious that Obama went to a church where Wright made offensive remarks while McCain had been a war hero to anyone who watched the National conventions or paid attention to political news—that is the types of people likely to vote. Second, if you believe that the economy caused voters to overlook Wright in 2008, then it is certainly likely that the same dynamic will be at play this year. Poll after poll for example shows that the biggest issue on voters’ minds is the economy.

So it is difficult to envision that Wright will deliver votes to Republicans that they would not have had before. Even worse, I suspect that using Wright will cause Republicans substantial problems. First, there is potential for backlash among certain voters. Black voters may well perceive the use of Wright as a racist campaign tactic, which could cause them to vote, donate, and volunteer at higher rates. It is true enough Obama has something like a lock on the black vote. But if Republicans are viewed as using racist means to keep the first Black President out of the White House, less politically engaged Blacks may come to the polls out of resentment. In addition, politically engaged Blacks will have a potent issue to use to convince less politically engaged ones that they absolutely need to turn out.

Second, this may alienate crucial white suburban voters who do not want to feel like they are supporting a party that uses racist tactics. These voters could well be susceptible to Republican messaging on spending and deficits. Why risk alienating them?

Lastly, using Wright takes attention away from the most potent issues Republicans can use against Obama: the economy. Instead, the debate will become about Obama’s character and his true feelings about America. The problem here is that most Americans like Obama personally. They view him as a good father and husband. In addition, Obama would be more than happy to answer questions about how much he loves America by talking about the raid he ordered to kill Osama bin Laden and his surge in Afghanistan. When the debate about Obama’s character and love of America is over, it is hard to see how Republicans will have gained any advantage.

Remember, Team Obama would much rather debate Obama’s character and patriotism than it would the state of the economy. Given this reality, taking focus off the economy is madness. Wright may be a tempting foil for Republicans, but they should resist the urge to use him for their own good.

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