Opposition Research, Politics and the Press
Richard Blumenthal’s problems prove one of my cardinal rules of politics – there is no such thing as a coincidence. You look deeply enough and you’ll find a reasonable explanation, not a coincidence, for everything.
Blumenthal is the attorney general of Connecticut and, before the New York Times exposed his – to say the least – inconsistent statements about his Marine Corps service during the Vietnam era, he was also the front runner to replace retiring Sen. Chris Dodd in the U.S. Senate.
But Blumenthal’s still unfolding story is about more than just another politician not being square about his military service. His story is also a rare and fascinating glimpse behind the veil of secrecy that, more times than you might think, finds reporters and news organizations serving as the willing conduits for information/dirt/scandal that one political camp wants to dish on another.
It was no coincidence that the story about Blumenthal’s apparent embellishment of his military record hit just before the state’s political nominating conventions and at a moment when he appeared to be on a smooth glide path to election in the fall. The story of a politician imploding that appears on the front page of the Times is about as big a body blow as you can imagine for a candidate, particularly if that candidate is a Democrat.
The Bluemental story went national instantly and with all the mainstream credibility that goes with a story where the venerable Times takes down a liberal. Its hard to think the story would have had as much impact had it originated in, say, the Hartford Courant. An immediate Rasmussen survey showed that the Times story had dramatically tightened the Connecticut race.
It was also no coincidence that Blumenthal’s GOP opponent in the November election, multi-millionaire Linda McMahon, helped the Times explore the essence of Blumenthal’s exaggerations based upon McMahon’s own opposition research. While it is still unclear how exclusively the Times relied upon the work of Blumenthal’s opponents to try and bring him down, it is not in doubt that McMahon’s campaign had a role. They actually bragged about it.
Times’ editors, meanwhile, defend the handling of the story and insist it didn’t originate with McMahon’s campaign, but don’t explain precisely how they came to investigate the story. Blumenthal defenders quickly hit back, with Howard Dean calling the Times story a “hatchet job” because the paper relied upon information from an opposing campaign.
The hubris of Blumenthal’s opponent actually admitting to playing a role in advancing the story is fascinating since it violated the unwritten rule about such things. Political operatives and reporters engage in the dance for information all the time but rarely, if ever, let the rest of us in on the details. Ironically, the bragging by McMahon’s campaign also tended to dampen the impact of what Blumenthal has done.
Consider all this the journalistic version of the Mafia’s code of silence. Reporters take tips and research from political operatives all the time, but it is considered truly bad form to admit that it happens. This delicate dance is part of the little understood symbiotic relationship among reporters, politicians and their operatives who constantly engage in the trading of information. Information, like the fact that a candidate hasn’t been square about his military service or had a business deal go bad, is particularly valuable to reporters when an election roles around and a opposing campaign has the financial ability to fund deep and broad opposition research. It’s like adding a research bureau to the newsroom.
Closer to home, I have no idea – only my belief in no coincidence – about why and how the relentless barrage of stories have surfaced over the last month about the various missteps of Idaho congressional candidate Vaughn Ward. It violates my rule to believe the stories are mere coincidence.
Clearly some of the stories – Puerto Rico is a country, for example, not a U.S. Commonwealth – were driven by Ward’s own words. But with all due respect to the Idaho reporters who broke other stories about Ward’s failure to pay taxes, failure to vote in 2008, failure to acknowledge – or at least see the irony – in his wife taking home a paycheck from Fannie Mae while he was bashing bank bailouts, that he cribbed from other candidates websites to flesh out his own positions, that he misfiled his financial disclosure form, that he violated Marine Corps rules about using his military standing in his ads and that he borrowed a pick-up truck for his first TV ad – did I miss something – its impossible to believe all that information was merely the result of old fashioned, hard-work reporting…or coincidence.
We all know newsrooms are in steep decline. Reporters and news organizations have fewer resources and less time than ever to pursue stories, particularly stories that take time and may – and often do – result in nothing more than arriving at a dead end. This environment makes opposition research even more valuable for news organizations and makes it all the more important that news consumers understand how the game is played.
A few weeks ago, John Miller of the Associated Press filed a fascinating story – no coincidence – that Idaho campaigns are becoming better and better at opposition research. Miller noted that reporters often get a call that starts with something like: “hey, did you hear about…”
So, with these caveats – Blumenthal has some serious explaining to do, each of the Ward stories is legit and helps explain the character of a major candidate and there is nothing wrong with reporters getting tips from anyone – I offer three rules to guide future reading of such stories.
- Money pays for research. McMahon’s campaign in Connecticut is self-funded – she says she’ll spend $34 million on the race – with the millions she made from professional wrestling. And, again no coincidence, national Democrats have more money than Republicans so far in this election cycle. By definition, that means more money for opposition research on candidates like, say, Vaughn Ward. Well-funded campaigns tend to do the most complete job of researching their opponents – no coincidence.
- Reporters make use of this kind of information – oppo research – all the time and almost never with any hint of where it came from. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps, but it does raise questions of motive and benefit. Next time you see a story along these lines, ask yourself who stands to benefit the most from having the story reported? Who has a motive for getting the story out? And, remember no coincidences.
- Finally, as Harry Truman famously said, if you can’t stand the heat leave the kitchen. Politics is a contact sport. Life – political life, especially – ain’t fair. If you have skeletons in that closet, they’ll be rattled. Reporting the shortcomings in political resumes is what reporters do. With respect to Sarah Palin’s stumping for Ward in Boise this week, as she calls it, the “lamestream media” reports what it can stumble upon and also what it is served on a silver platter and that, too, is no coincidence.
Never Heard of Dale Peterson…Now You Have
Big ol’ Dale has become, thanks to the Internet, the most famous man ever to run for State Agriculture Commissioner.
If you’re a political junkie, or just a student of popular culture, you must check out Peterson’s web-based commercial. The spot hasn’t ever run on TV, but it’s gone viral on YouTube (an increasingly vital portal for political ads), received thousands of hits, generated national press coverage and spawned a parody. Since this is a family website, you’ll have to go find the parody yourself. It won’t be hard.
In the spot, Peterson, a Republican, rides a horse, wears a white Stetson, hoists a rifle and looks directly into the camera and bellows – “listen up!” It’s raw, populist red meat for red necks and its, perhaps unintentionally, very funny. Yet, the guy really looks like he should be the Ag Commissioner in Alabama.
A number of observers, including this one, say the ad is the best so far in this political cycle.
Peterson’s ad is, like most memorable political spots, different, funny and sharply pointed. It reminds me of some of the ads Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and New Mexico Gov, Bill Richardson have run in their campaigns.
Dan Testa, writing for the Flathead Beacon, makes the Schweitzer connection and offers his check list for a Peterson-type ad: “…this one covers all the bases: Horses? Check. Western wear? Check. Ranch or farm setting? Check. White-hot faux populist anger? Check. Firearms? You should know better than to ask.”
The best political ads, I think, give the viewer 30 seconds (or 60 in Peterson’s case) of real insight into the candidate. In 1990, former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus’ best – and most remembered spot – featured him spontaneously reaching in his pocket to pull out his wallet in order to show a potential voter the fish he had caught with his granddaughter. When the prospective voter asked the angling governor, “where did you catch those?” Andrus responded: “No tellem creek…” and everyone had a good laugh.
The spot was truly captured as it happened, unscripted and unrehearsed. In a few seconds it showed Andrus to be a proud grandfather, a successful fisherman and a fast man with a quip. In other words, it provided that 30 second look into what the guy is all about.
I don’t know if Dale Peterson will win the GOP nomination for Ag Commissioner in Alabama, but I do know most people who see his commercial will remember it – and him. That’s the point.
What Does it Portend for Idaho Next Week?
The political establishment took it on the chin in yesterday’s primaries in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas.
Voters said no to long time incumbents and party-endorsed favorites in both parties and forced Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a runoff that she might well lose.
Any lessons for Idaho? Maybe.
The highest profile race next week in Idaho is the GOP battle in the First Congressional district for the chance to take on first-term incumbent Walt Minnick. By any measure, the establishment candidate is Vaughn Ward who hopes to regain his perceived front runner momentum with a last week visit from once and future candidate Sarah Palin. Ward is trying to get up off the canvas after being downed by a truly amazing series of gaffes; the most amazing series I’ve seen in watching 35 years of Idaho politics.
Still, Ward has a long list of establishment endorsements, including Dirk Kempthorne, Phil Batt and Idaho First Lady Lori Otter. He will outspend his primary opponent Raul Labrador in the range of 4-1. National Republicans have tagged him as the best hope against the Blue Dog Minnick. Yet, all that advantage – considering the political background from Tuesday’s primary – may not help Ward all that much this year.
Things to watch in the last week:
- Can Ward avoid another damaging front page story in the last week? The hits the first time candidate have taken have been fierce, but we’ll see if they have been fatal. They range from his wife’s work for mortgage giant Fannie Mae, while he’s attacking the kind of bank bailouts that saved Fannie Mae. Ward is an Iraq war veteran who has had the Marine Corps chastise him for the way he has presented himself in uniform. He failed to pay taxes on property he owns or properly file a required disclosure form. Spokesman-Review reporter Betsy Russell twice caught his campaign plagiarizing other candidate’s positions on his website. That last offense caused Ward to dismiss his campaign manager. As I said, unprecedented incoming fire. Update: The Statesman’s Dan Popkey has a story today that won’t help Ward’s prmary end game. While touting his Marine credentials, Ward – despite promises to do so – hasn’t released records about this service.
- Will Ward’s money advantage help him prevail? While the use of a borrowed pickup truck for his first campaign TV spot got Ward some unwelcome attention, the fact remains that he’s been up on TV and Labrador hasn’t. It appears both campaigns, based on the disclosure reports, are running on empty, but many First District voters likely know what they know about the race from seeing a Ward TV spot.
- Will the sustained negative media coverage of Ward’s mistakes offset his money and endorsements? Or, put another way – have folks been reading the papers? What is often called “earned media” was once considered absolutely critical to a candidate’s ability to to put across his message. But with generally less coverage of politics by the Idaho media, more specialized attention by bloggers and widespread use of social media and the web, whose to say the barrage of negative coverage of Ward has had as much impact on the voting public as it has, for example, on the state’s political elite who have generally watched his campaign with jaws dropped.
- Does Palin’s visit help? Minnick’s campaign poised the question of why she would be campaigning for Ward when he didn’t vote for the McCain-Palin ticket in 2008, another of his gaffes? Ward managed the McCain campaign in Nevada, but didn’t solve the riddle of getting his hands on an absentee ballot so he could vote. Palin will turn out a crowd, but for whom – Ward or the Wonder from Wasilla?
- Finally, who shows up to vote next Tuesday? Idaho primaries typically produce the most faithful, most committed voters. Does either campaign have a voter turnout operation? And ultimately will Idaho voters follow the money and big name endorsements, or will they, like in Pennsylvania and Kentucky senate primaries, reject the establishment candidate?
Meanwhile, Minnick continues to pull in his own conservative endorsements and fatten his campaign account.
No predictions here. I’ll just continue to watch with fascination. It’s almost as good as a Red Sox-Yankees game.
A Kitzhaber Comeback…or a GOP Fast Break?
While most of the national attention today will be focused on Specter and Sestak in Pennsylvania, Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas and whether a straight up Tea Party candidate can get a Senate nomination in Kentucky, one of the more intriguing races could be forming in Oregon.
John Kitzhaber, a two-term former Governor, seems sure to win Oregon’s Democratic primary today, while Republican newcomer and former NBA player Chris Dudley – all 7 feet 1 inch of him – could win the GOP nod. It is a race worth watching. Both men held leads in some of the recent public polling.
I’ve written here in the past about the difficulty of pulling off a political comeback, which may be Kitzhaber’s biggest challenge in a blue state that he once called “ungovernable.” The last Oregon comeback attempt – Tom McCall’s in 1978 – fell flat. At the same time, first-time candidates who try to launch political careers from the top – above the rim in Dudley’s case? – often stumble.
MSNBC has a good take on the race this morning, noting that in a recent robo-call poll Dudley came out ahead of the two other GOP contenders at just “shy of his career 46% free throw shooting percentage.”
No word on Kitzhaber’s career shooting percentage.
Senate Rule 38: …the final question on every nomination shall be, “Will the Senate advise and consent to this nomination?…”
In Otto Preminger’s 1962 film of Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Advise and Consent, Walter Pidgeon – playing the Senate Majority Leader – tells the fictional president: “that’s a hell of an appointment.”
That must be every majority leader’s lament to every president: “you gave me this nomination to get through the Senate?”
I got to thinking, in light of Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court and the nasty, Internet-driven campaign to raise questions about her sexual orientation – if the old Drury novel, with the same subplot, holds up all these years later. Simple answer: absolutely.
The dust jacket of Advise and Consent – it was published in 1959 – talks about “driving ambition” and “ugly personal jealousies” and the always popular “vicious demagogues.” Sounds like this morning’s headlines. The Senate historian has a wonderful piece on the book that provides some guesses as to who Drury based his characters on and notes that the novel launched his fiction writing career.
How good was the book? Drury’s major competition for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1960 was Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King and, this is saying something, the inside account of a Washington, D.C. Senate confirmation fight won out. In literary competitions, as in politics, you are often defined by who you beat.
Writing in Policy Review Roger Kaplan said Advise and Consent is the only book of its genre – the political thriller – worthy of literary acclaim. And NPR’s Scott Simon noted on the 50th anniversary of the novel that he has read and re-read the book since first discovering it when he was 12 years old.
Thomas Mallon’s 50-year look back at the book in the New York Times noted that Drury’s senators in the late 1950’s were dealing with issues of pre-empetive war, the consequences of lying under oath and the notion that the cover up is always worse than the crime. Add the sexual orientation subplot now rearing its ugly head in the Kagan nomination and it is easy to conclude that not much changes in American politics.
I also agree with Peter Bogdanovich that Preminger’s movie, based on the book, just might be the best American political movie ever. It has a great cast, in addition to Pidgeon, that includes Henry Fonda, Don Murray, Peter Lawford, the great Charles Laughton and, brace yourself, Betty White. It is a great film.
Drury’s story, of course, involves a decades-old allegation about sexual orientation. Eventually all the principle characters know what’s going on, as do newspaper reporters, and in 1959 – at least in Advise and Consent – the mere hint of being outted as a homosexual was enough to prompt a suicide of a prominent senator. The whispering about Kagan has already moved to the mainstream with the Associated Press asking if her orientation is anyone’s business. Ultimately that question, and any other you can think of, is for the Senate to determine as part of its Constitutional duty to advise and consent. How the question is handled will say as much about the Senate as it will about the nominee.
Years after his celebrated book was published and after Drury, a Times reporter, had written several other not-so-well received books, he was asked what he made of the Senate that he had long covered and wrote about in fiction and non-fiction books. Drury said: “There’s nothing like it on God’s green earth.” That’s for sure.
Read the book and rent the movie. Think of it as research for the Kagan hearings.
That Reminds Me of a Story…
I think the wonderful line is attributable to former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson. At least I’ll give him credit. It sounds like something he would have said.
When asked if there is any cure for the “disease of politics,” the crusty old GOP moderate replied: “Yup, embalming fluid.”
I have been thinking about that line in connection with the U.S. Senate primary races underway in Arizona, where John McCain is doing everything he can to get rid of any hint that he was once the Senate’s biggest maverick, and in Pennsylvania, where Arlen Specter is running away from his 40-plus years as a Republican.
There is much to lament these days in our politics, but it is downright sad to see guys like McCain and Specter abandon character right along with the policies they have embraced for years. I know, it’s all about political survival in this toxic environment, but they still have to look themselves in the mirror every morning when they lather up. You wonder how they do it.
McCain has embraced the controversial Arizona immigration law like the born again Tea Party activist that he has become. This despite his courageous bi-partisan efforts – with Ted Kennedy – to force action on an immigration strategy that might have actually helped address the problem. McCain’s new TV spot features him walking along the Arizona-Mexico border talking tough with a sheriff about finishing “the dang fence,” a policy he once dismissed as ineffective.
Specter is running TV spots featuring President Obama saying nice things about him after he cravenly switched parties in order, as he put it at the time, to have a chance of being re-elected to a sixth term. A few months ago Specter, then a Republican, voted against the confirmation of Elena Kagan to be solicitor general of the United States. Now that he’s a Democrat, he thinks Kagan looks a whole lot better as a Supreme Court nominee.
These guys, both admirable in past lives because of their cranky independence, have succumbed to the political disease to such a degree that they appear ready to do and say almost anything to hang on to high public office. Make way the embalming fluid.
And while it may be true, in Emerson’s famous phrase, that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” We’ll see soon enough if voters agree.
The real point of the famous essay – Self-Reliance – that Emerson’s “foolish consistency” line is plucked from is contained at the very end.
“A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”
Principle is taking a beating in these two races.