Until now, it's fair to say that the Republican Party could narrowly claim the high ground in the 2012 ad wars. Sure, the party's super PACS had aired misleading television ads about President Obama before. But the GOP could claim that while it was legitimately defining the election as a referendum on a sitting president, a Democratic administration in a sour economy was forced to frame the election as a choice -- and it was clearly poised to trash the choice who wasn't President Obama. Think about it: If Obama and his allies are portraying Romney as a "vampire'' who preyed on the working class in May, what is the rhetoric going to sound like in October?
But the high-ish ground under the GOP collapsed abruptly with a New York Times story that details a race-baiting television campaign under consideration by a super PAC and some GOP veteran strategists. The apparent goal: to stoop even lower than the race-baiting attacks that failed to torpedo Obama in 2008. The proposed ad, titled "The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama,'' would seek to remind voters of Obama's incendiary former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. That relationship was litigated in the last campaign, though the president's harshest critics may not have been satisfied.
This proposed ad is a black eye for the GOP even if it never hits the airwaves. This was not some shadowy fringe group at work; according to the Times, the ad was overseen by veteran strategist Fred Davis and sponsored by Joe Ricketts, the founder of Ameritrade. And it's a reminder that after a Republican primary season fraught with worries about whether a Mormon candidate could appease the party's conservative Christian base, most people see Romney first and foremost as a white man. The president is not. He hinted at that himself recently, quipping during his appearance on ABC's The View, "When your name is Barack Obama, (the election) is always tight.''
At times, the general election has threatened to evolve into a substantial, policy-based debate over two competing views of the role of government in fixing the economy. Romney can make a persuasive case that Obama's policies have not eased the financial burdens crushing millions of Americans. Obama can raise valid questions about whether Romney's tax plan would serve mostly to further enrich the wealthy. Both sides can question each other's alleged commitment to reducing the deficit.
With unemployment hovering above 8 percent, a continuing foreclosure crisis and a trillion-dollar deficit, the Republican party doesn't need to go fishing for ad fodder in dark places.
The Romney campaign quickly distanced itself from the ugly attack this morning, though it couldn't resist also taking a dig at Obama. "It's clear President Obama's team is running a campaign of character assassination. We repudiate any efforts on our side to do so," said Romney's campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, in a statement.
And just as quickly, a pro-Obama super PAC sought to capitalize on the controversy. In a fundraising e-mail titled "Hate and Money,'' Priorities USA decried the "alarming report on how some of the most prominent Republicans in the country want to tear down the president.''
If there's one thing strategists from both parties agree on, it's that political debates that distract from the dismal economy can only help President Obama. For that reason, the president may have won the day.