Now, with the emergence of the notorious video showing the Rev. Jeremiah Wright damning the country, criticizing Israel, faulting U.S. policy for the Sept. 11 attacks and generally lashing out against white America, GOP strategists believe they’ve finally found an antidote to Obamamania.
In their view, the inflammatory sermons by Obama’s pastor offer the party a pathway to victory if Obama emerges as the Democratic nominee. Not only will the video clips enable some elements of the party to define him as unpatriotic, they will also serve as a powerful motivating force for the conservative base.
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In fact, the video trove has convinced some that, after months of praying for Hillary Clinton and the automatic enmity which she arouses, that they may actually have easier prey.
“For the first time, some Republicans are rethinking Hillary as their first choice,” said Alex Castellanos, a veteran media consultant who recently worked for Mitt Romney’s campaign.
Even Obama’s much-lauded Tuesday speech, which detailed his relationship with his church and focused on the issue of racial reconciliation, failed to shake the notion that Republicans had been given a rare political gift.
“It was a speech written to mau-mau the New York Times editorial board, the network production people and the media into submission. Beautifully calibrated but deeply dishonest,” said GOP media consultant Rick Wilson, who crafted the 2002 ad tying then-Sen. Max Cleland to Osama bin Laden. “Not good enough.”
Until now, questions about Obama’s allegiance to country had been largely confined to the fever swamps of the Internet and e-mail chains. They took the form of dark whispers about the greater meaning of Obama’s failure to put his hand over his heart during one national anthem, his decision not to wear an American flag lapel pin and, at their most toxic, the outright lie that he’s a Muslim or some sort of Manchurian candidate.
With Michelle Obama’s comments last month that she was, thanks to her husband’s candidacy, for the first time “really proud of [her country],” the topic entered the more mainstream elements of the conservative conversation, ricocheting across talk radio, cable news and blogs.
“All the sudden you’ve got two dots, and two dots make a line,” said Castellanos. “You start getting some sense of who he is, and it’s not the Obama you thought. He’s not the Tiger Woods of politics.”
But if Michelle Obama’s gaffe caused some ripples in the right-wing pond, the Wright videos have detonated the equivalent of a daisy cutter on the conservative landscape, awakening an otherwise dispirited party base.
“I usually get three or four emails a week on Obama,” said Michigan Republican chairman Saul Anuzis Monday. “Today I received more than 10, all of them on his minister.”
Among the e-mails Anuzis received was a link to a mash-up video splicing together Wright’s most extreme comments, Michelle Obama’s statement, footage of Obama not putting his hand over his heart during the anthem at a political event and images of Malcolm X and the two black Olympians in 1968 who raised their fists in the “black power” salute, set to Public Enemy's iconic rap song “Fight the Power.”
The video, titled “Is Obama Wright?” is described as being produced by something called “NHaleMedia,” apparently just a dummy website set up to produce anonymous and homemade vieos.
In effect, the pastor has done what many on the right, quivering even with the anonymity afforded by the online era, had hesitated over until now: thrust highly delicate matters of patriotism and race into the political dialogue.
“It opens up an entire new vein,” said Republican consultant Paul Wilson.
Just as with John F. Kerry and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004, Republican strategists view the Wright flap as deeply damaging to Obama because it strikes at the message, or set of principles, at the heart of his candidacy.
In Obama’s case, the core of his appeal has been that he transcends race and is more inclined toward conciliation than combat.
“He wants the authentic black image but he also wants to keep all his safe, suburban Obamacans in line,” said Rick Wilson. “Well, you can’t have both. They’re mutually exclusive.”
“This is a guy who associates with some real haters,” he added.
Perhaps most damaging for Obama, his opponents now have the powerful video to make that case.
“It’s harder for people to say it’s taken out of context because these are Wright’s own words,” noted Chris LaCivita, the Republican strategist who helped craft the Swift Boat commercials against Kerry that employed the use of their target’s own language when he returned from Vietnam and returned his medals. “You let people draw their own conclusions.”
“You don’t have to say that he’s unpatriotic; you don’t question his patriotism,” he added. “Because I guaran-damn-tee you that, with that footage, you don’t have to say it.”
Asked if John McCain would say it or even suggest it, a spokesman for the presumptive Republican nominee indicated that he would not.
“There are profound differences on enormously important issues that will affect the future of the country,” said McCain adviser Steve Schmidt. “He’s said he intends to campaign on those issues.”
McCain’s hesitance to go anywhere near the Wright videos speaks to just how explosive they could be among voters — but also to his awareness of the potential for a backlash.
“He needs to stay away from it,” said Paul Wilson of McCain. “It’s poison.”
But thanks to the power of new media forces — talk radio, cable TV and blogs — to drive a story line, McCain’s job could easily be done for him.
“The best thing the GOP can do is stay out of it,” suggested Jim Dyke, a former RNC communications chief who was a key figure in the behind-the-scenes takedown of Kerry in ’04. “Why risk getting shot by running into the middle of a circular firing squad?”
And to interfere may obscure the attack, added Castellanos. “Leave it alone. The last thing you want is to make it a partisan Republican attack. It’s much more credible on its own.”
Yet some conservatives aren’t content to let the video played out organically, spread via “Did you see this?” e-mails — especially if it’s revealed that Obama was in fact in the church when Wright delivered some of his more incendiary remarks. The temptation to craft an ad may be overwhelming.
“Obama knows that if somebody puts him in church on some day that Wright said some crazy [stuff], like white people injected blacks with AIDS, he’s in a world of hurt,” said Rick Wilson. “I would eat this up like cake.”