Why Should Jeremiah Wright Be Off-Limits for Political Attacks?

There are plenty of pragmatic reasons Romney and the GOP should steer clear of the pastor. But there's no compelling moral reason that they must.

A 2008 ad run by an independent Republican group, the National Republican Trust PAC.

The reaction was swift to news that a conservative super PAC was considering ads that attacked President Obama by tying him to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the controversial pastor whose church Obama attended in Chicago. A consensus was reached quickly: Such attacks are out of bounds. Mitt Romney's campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, said in a statement, "It's clear President Obama's team is running a campaign of character assassination. We repudiate any efforts on our side to do so." That wasn't enough for the Obama campaign. Campaign manager Jim Messina fumed in a statement, "Once again, Governor Romney has fallen short of the standard that John McCain set, reacting tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership in standing up to the very extreme wing of his own party." By early afternoon, even Joe Ricketts, the billionaire who was funding the yet-to-be-approved campaign, had disavowed it.

But why?

The argument that Wright can't be discussed seems to rest on three premises. First is the Obama campaign's version, which seems to commit the logical fallacy of begging the question: It's immoral because it's immoral. Second, the Obamans and others contend that because John McCain refused to make Wright an issue, it must inherently be wrong to do so. Third, old-school political gentlemen's agreements frown on attacks on religion (as well as families). And underlying all of this is a suggestion that Wright can't be discussed because any conversation about him is inherently racist.

Plainly, none of these is convincing. Guilt-by-association arguments are weak. But no one disputes that Obama was a member of Wright's congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ. The title of Obama's book The Audacity of Hope was taken from a Wright sermon. Candidate Obama felt the connection was close enough that he had to address it, something he did in his Philadelphia speech on race in American, widely hailed as one of his finest.

That speech is also a powerful retort to the idea that discussing race is automatically racist. Wright and Obama have both -- in their own, very different ways -- called on America to discuss race more openly, without sweeping old fissures and disagreements under the carpet. There's a very real danger that conversations about Wright will culminate in racism, but it's not automatic, it's not necessary, and it's not sufficient reason to abandon all discussion of racial politics in the U.S. Furthermore, contrary to popular perceptions, Wright's most controversial statements -- "God damn America" and a claim that 9/11 represented "America's chickens ... coming home to roost" -- actually referred specifically to excessive incarceration and U.S. foreign policy, not to exclusively African-American concerns.

How about religion? Is it categorically off limits? Perhaps it was at one time. Just as the Romney campaign condemned the new proposal, the Obama campaign has ruled out any attack on Romney's religion. But just as an outside group developed this ad, other Democrats have brought up Mormonism -- most recently Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Moreover, religion has become a linchpin of campaigns over the last four decades. Since the election of evangelical Jimmy Carter and the rise of the Moral Majority, candidates have frequently dwelled on religion; if it's part of the discourse, it's part of the discourse. And the Wright-Obama link is hardly unique. In 2008, John McCain rejected the endorsement of John Hagee, a pastor described as anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.

Nor is this Wright's first appearance in 2012. In February, Romney himself brought Wright up during a radio appearance with Sean Hannity. What's the difference here? And what is a legitimate attack on someone's record, and what is "character assassination," as Rhoades described the Ricketts ad? Why is it OK to suggest that Barack Obama is unpatriotic, apologizes for America, and doesn't believe in American exceptionalism -- but not acceptable to tie him to someone who is accused of being unpatriotic and not believing in American exceptionalism?

The problem with disqualifying the Wright stuff is that it's unclear where the bright line is. When does discussion of religion tip into forbidden territory? How close does one have to be before guilt-by-association comes into play? Many people may have suggestions, but all of them will be arbitrary. Some (non-racist!) voters believe that the fact that Obama went to Wright's church proves a fundamental point about his character, just as some voters are convinced that the fact that Romney drove to Canada with a dog tied to his car proves a fundamental and equally negative point about his character.

While the moral case against using Wright is weak, there are three strong pragmatic reasons Republicans might want to resist bringing him back into the debate.

Most sensitively, there's the danger of race-baiting discussed above. While many Americans might take issue with Wright's views, there's a large gap between him and a black nationalist like Louis Farrakhan.

There's also a high likelihood of falsehood. While no one disputes that Wright made the two comments above -- they came from sermon transcripts sold by his church -- Obama was apparently not present for either of them. Suggesting otherwise is at best unsupported and at worst lying.

Most importantly from a political standpoint, it's unclear whether an attack based on the Rev. Wright would be politically beneficial. John McCain's campaign considered it in 2008 and even created an ad criticizing Obama for not leaving Wright's church, but then decided not to air it. An independent Republican PAC created an ad of its own and aired it, but McCain attacked the spot. Wilson told BuzzFeed he thinks the ad could have been effective if not for McCain undercutting it, but he says it's now too late to profit from the story: Voters already know about and have made their decisions about Wright and Obama. There's not much room to sway them.

Not only might the ad fail to hurt Obama, it could blow back on Romney. Part of that has to do with the Republican nominee's particular vulnerabilities as a candidate. As McKay Coppins put it, Romney's campaign -- still sensitive about the Mormon question -- "doesn't want to get into a flame war over religion, even by proxy."

But some of it applies to all politicians. Remember how those gentlemen's agreements covered religion and family? To see a good example of how attacks on family can still backfire, look at l'affaire Hilary Rosen. Democrats were on a roll, blasting the supposed Republican "War on Women," until Rosen questioned Ann Romney's work ethic because she was a stay-at-home mom. The reaction was fast and fierce; the Obama campaign disavowed her remarks; Rosen herself apologized multiple times; and Democrats' momentum evaporated. Even though the White House had no part in starting the flap, Obama was still hurt by it.

The incident shows that old taboos still have some power, and the danger for Romney is that he could be caught in the same pattern of crossfire. To get a sense of who might be most energized about the Wright story, consider this: As of 2:45 p.m. Thursday, left-leaning MSNBC had mentioned the Ricketts ad more than three times as often as either right-leaning Fox News or centrist CNN.

That's reason enough to steer way clear of the Wright story. Doing so may very well be the wisest path. But it's not the only morally justifiable one.