Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
GOP pitchman Fred (“Demon Sheep”) Davis wanted Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts to give him $10 million for an ad campaign attacking President Obama for promoting himself as a “metrosexual black Abe Lincoln.” It’s a great phrase, like “Etch-A-Sketch candidate,” but that trio of sneers sounds a lot more like the mood of those restive GOP debate audiences last winter.
The black part is pretty straightforward—the ad campaign would link Obama to his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who has been code for “scary black man” on Fox News for four years running. “Metrosexual” is “a roundabout homophobia taunt,” as Charles Blow says, as well as demeaning code for Obama’s most annoying (to the GOP) trait—his cool, unflappable acceptance of contemporary life, including gay marriage, which is splitting their coalition (even the Ricketts family itself, since Joe’s daughter, Laura, is an LGBT activist and Obama bundler). And “Abe Lincoln” is, of course, ironic: Davis didn’t mean Obama is equivalent to the first Republican to be elected president, he meant that Obama sees himself as a charismatic leader on a moral crusade to win America’s current management/labor dispute. Billionaires like Joe think Obama taking the mantle of Lincoln is meant to make them look like Simon Legree.
“But, they still ‘like’ him,” Davis wrote in the fifty-four-page storyboarded ad proposal that appeared on the front page of the New York Times last week.
Bitter is the taste of another man’s bread, and the gall of Obama’s success with the American people taints every morsel of Davis’s text. This particular ad campaign will never air, of course, because both Ricketts, whose fortune comes from founding TD Ameritrade, and Mitt Romney repudiated it as soon as the Times exposed it. Brian Baker, head of Rickett’s Ending Spending super PAC, issued a statement saying that the campaign was “merely a proposal—one of several” and that “attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally” reflect “an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects.”
That may be, but it wasn’t as if Ricketts, or Baker, had previously rejected the plan out of hand. The day before its story broke, the Times asked Baker “whether Mr. Ricketts had rejected the advertising proposal, [and] he said only that no decision had been made.” You’d expect them to deny it now; the point is the proposal exposed the GOP’s nervousness about Obama’s personal likability. After three years of the GOP’s non-stop obstruction and economic hostage-taking, coupled now with an austerity program that’s being rejected around the world, the Republicans simply can’t believe people don’t blame the president for all that.
“Yet, we still ‘like’ him,” Davis wrote.
When you are running with a popsicle stick like Mitt Romney, that’s a problem. Most of the outrage over the Davis proposal stems from its willingness to dredge up Reverend Wright once more; his fiery sermons about “not God bless America, God damn America!”led to Obama’s eloquent speech about race in 2008, which pretty much ended the issue. Wright (and race) are still important reasons for the GOP base to hate Obama. But most of the Republican establishment thinks using race will turn off independent votes—just as the McCain campaign feared it would when they rejected an Obama-Wright ad Davis tried to sell them back in 2008.
Mark Salter, a close McCain adviser, figures that’s why the ad campaign ended up in the Times in the first place. “I suspect this was leaked by someone who wants to stop it from happening,” he told ABC News. The conventional wisdom now is to read this whole kerfuffle as a Karl Rovian warning shot that Citizens United freelancers need to fall in line and bear Mittness to a unified message.
Fred Davis has played for both the mainstream and Tea Party sides of the Republican roller derby since the McCain/Palin defeat. Davis’s greatest talent is for creepy, GIF-like visuals that invoke apocalyptic or occult imagery, like the red-eyed demon sheep he created for Carly Fiorina, the pulsing millennial strobe of the Obama “Celebrity” ad for John McCain, or Christine O’Donnell, candidate for US Senate, looking straight into the camera and saying, “I am not a witch.” Davis is still smarting that he wasn’t allowed to take down Obama the Wright way the first time, and he had reason to think Ricketts is, too. The proposal starts out by quoting Ricketts saying, “If the nation had seen that [2008 Davis] ad, they’d never have elected Barack Obama.”
But there’s every reason, judging from the proposal, to think that Davis saw playing with racial anxieties as a door-buster, a budget multiplier:
Prepare for a great deal of howling and gnashing of teeth from all of the usual suspects and some of their weak-kneed Republican co-conspirators. Obama for sure will play the race card, as will the liberal press.
That gives us enormous free airtime and we will prevail provided our response is locked, loaded and ready.
It’s a phenomenally powerful argument that’s never been properly exploited.
Davis wanted to leach the sting of the racism charge by hiring “an extremely literate, conservative African-American” spokesman, and recommended California talk show host Larry Elder. According to the proposal, Davis’s people approached Elder “in confidence and he immediately understood and ‘got it.’”
Hundreds of thousands of Republicans were really taken with Herman Cain, too. All of this seems obviously racist to many of us, but to conservatives, it’s not. Think of it as identity politics in reverse—the more you claim to see no racial conflict in America, the more you establish your Republican identity. And yet many believe that Obama won because he’s black. Davis is groping towards a way of saying, “Of course you like the exotic, handsome black guy, but face it, you can’t afford him.” The long lines of devoted fans following Obama “like sheep,” stubbornly liking him after all the economic pain his administration has overseen, similarly defy the way the Republican establishment thinks of politics itself, chiefly as a way to apportion wealth.
And wealth, in many ways, is Mitt Romney’s race; for one thing, it’s both a positive and a negative. It’s Joe Ricketts’ race, too, and billionaire Frank Vandersloot’s,who gave a million dollars to a Romney Super PAC, took the title of Romney finance co-chair, and then complained that his private business had suffered prejudice because of his politics.
There’s nothing the GOP can do, really, about Obama’s log-cabin-to-the-White House story, which reminds us of another metrosexual from long ago (or wait—wasn’t he a vampire hunter? It doesn’t really matter). The essential thing is that selling a financial capitalist who favors austerity and the Ryan plan during the Great Recession won’t be easy, and to do it, this year, for the first time, a sitting president will have to be outspent in advertising. In all that paid time there has to be room for a few spots that really make you dislike the guy.
Not because he’s black, of course…