For months, we waited for the McCain campaign to unveil an offensive on Barack Obama’s ties to Jeremiah Wright. Yet, the Arizona Senator stuck to his spring pledge to keep Wright off-limits (besides Sarah Palin’s seemingly improvised decision to bring up Wright in an interview with Bill Kristol). Only in the final days did independent groups launch a flurry of ads featuring Wright - too little and too late to stop Obama’s momentum.
After the election, as McCain staffers revealed their secrets to eager journalists, we learned that the campaign had actually produced a number of negative ads that never aired - one featuring Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres, another unleashing the Wright attack.
Today, ABC News obtained and aired that unaired Wright ad, offering us a remarkable look into what might have been had McCain given his green light (the ad itself starts at 1:14):
The ad is framed around the issue of character - a key theme of McCain’s campaign - and seeks to contrast decisions made by Obama and McCain “when no one was looking.” While “one chose to honor his fellow soldiers by refusing to walk out of a prisoner of war camp,” says the announcer, “the other chose not to even walk out of church where a pastor was spewing hatred.” We then see footage of Wright’s famous “God Damn America” sermon.
It is impossible to know whether such an offensive would have truly damaged Obama, but there is no doubt that it would have fundamentally altered the course of the campaign. Yes, Republicans focused their campaign on Bill Ayers in the first half of October and thus used the type of guilt-by-association attack that the Wright ad would have played into - and that did them little good.
But invoking Wright would have injected race in the general election in a way in which both campaigns ultimately managed to avoid. In fact, it was rather surprising how little race was discussed; an early August war over Obama’s use of the race card threatened to throw the entire election into the dangerous territory of racial polarization and the topic had proved such a vivid one during the Democratic primaries.
Both campaigns could have lost a lot had race become a more explicit campaign theme. On the one hand, McCain could have suffered a severe backlash; on the other, Obama’s success was partially due to his ability to neutralize racial conversations, and a sudden increase in racial polarization could have hurt his appeal to culturally conservative white Democrats and independents - groups that ended up massively voting for him but that were not sure to do so during the summer.
In other words, this ad would have been fairly unpredictable but sure to attract so much attention as to monopolize the conversation for a significant amount of time.