Commentary: Joe Ricketts' good move in backing away from anti-Obama hatefest

The Miami HeraldMay 23, 2012 

Joe Ricketts has decided not to spend $10 million on hate. Good call.

Ricketts is a billionaire, having founded TD Ameritrade, a company that promotes online stock trading by ordinary folks. You’ve seen the commercials on television.

Up until a few days ago, a circle of well-known Republican strategists had been coaching Ricketts to use his wealth to make America hate President Obama.

They’d seen the polls showing that the president is generally well-liked, even by many voters who don’t approve of his economic policies. In the most recent Gallup survey, Obama likeability rating was 60 percent. Some Republicans believe that Mitt Romney, whose likeability ratings are dismal (only 31 percent), has no chance of victory unless Obama’s image is dragged down.

However, unlike Romney, the Ricketts assault team had no misgivings about playing the race card. According to the New York Times, a game plan recently presented to the Ricketts family rather glumly conceded that voters “still aren’t ready to hate this president.”

The challenge, it said, is “to inflame their questions on his character and competency, while allowing themselves to still somewhat ‘like’ the man  . . .” Yet the scheme was far more ambitious than traditional doubt-sowing. The goal was to portray Obama as a radical black man with radical views of America as extolled by a cranky old minister.

All this was leaked in detail to the Times, and Joe Ricketts wasn’t pleased about that. Nor, one would imagine, were the shareholders of TD Ameritrade.

Not to mention the very diverse fan base of the Chicago Cubs. The team is 95-percent owned by the Ricketts family.

Supervised by a veteran GOP ferret named Fred Davis, the political operatives advised the the elder Ricketts to bankroll a media blitz focusing on Obama’s onetime pastor and spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

Obama publicly severed his ties with the African-American clergyman before the 2008 election, after inflammatory excerpts from Wright’s sermons came to light.

At the time, Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, refused to let his advisers use Wright’s comments to bash Obama. McCain strongly felt such campaign commercials were inappropriate, and would be viewed as race-baiting. But some of McCain’s advisers, including Fred Davis, felt the Arizona senator had missed a golden opportunity to smear his opponent.

Four years later, they saw another chance with Joe Ricketts. The title of the no-longer-secret proposal: “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End his Spending for Good.”

A sample: “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.” We’re talking TV commercials, billboards, full-page newspaper ads. And here’s the clincher: These sharpies want to fly 8,500-square-foot aerial banners back and forth for hours over the site of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

The convention-goers, they assured Ricketts, will be “jolted.” Please, Joe, don’t unleash the banner planes — not the same diabolical, cutting-edge tactic used by beer companies at Daytona Beach!

In a political season that promises a surplus of low blows from both sides, the Ricketts Plan was scripted in the gutter.

When the Times broke the story last Thursday, Romney’s camp within nanoseconds declared that Rev. Wright should not and will not be an issue. As a Mormon, Romney has no desire to drag the topic of religious influences into the presidential race.

As the storm grew, a spokesman for Ricketts belatedly hurried to disown the campaign plan, blaming a “vendor” who submitted it for consideration to Ricketts’ super PAC. The spokesman said the businessman opposes political attacks “that seek to divide us socially or culturally.”

Besides running TD Ameritrade, the 70-year-old Ricketts is known for crusading against congressional earmarks and high government spending. (Interestingly, that hasn’t stopped his family from seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds for renovating Wrigley Field.) Ricketts’ son, Pete, sits on the Republican National Committee.

Who knows if the Ricketts Plan would have been executed had it not been leaked so early to the press. Davis, the so-called vendor, is not a rookie and he certainly wasn’t operating in a vacuum.

The question is why Republicans would attempt something as risky as using the disavowed commentary of a black preacher to attack Obama. Why spend $10 million of a fat cat’s money on an advertising barrage that’s bound to dredge up the worst kinds of reactions?

Unless that was its purpose — not to implant racial fears so much as to fire up the bigots who are already out there, and make sure they go to the polls. Romney isn’t a racist, but some in his party clearly believe he can’t win without a heavy turnout of people who cannot stomach the notion of a black guy in the White House.

Those are the votes that the banner planes were after. When hate is what you’re selling, always go low.

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