While the fall of Montana Sen. John Walsh is an extreme circumstance – most of us, I hope, have not plagiarized large portions of final papers while in college – it did get me thinking about how difficult it would be to run for higher office without having skeletons (small and large) fall out of the closet.
An interesting tidbit from the Walsh scandal was a story on the amount of resources both political parties spend on digging up dirt on an opponent. The Associated Press reported that Walsh’s plagiarism revelation “looked like the product of classic opposition research: An obscure document suddenly surfacing in politically damaging circumstances.”
With millions of dollars pouring into U.S. House and Senate races, largely attributed to softening campaign finance laws, this practice is “now more prevalent.”
It made me wonder what someone could dig up on me with millions in resources to comb over everything I’ve said, published or attended over the years. It wouldn’t take much. Perhaps a Google search – I’ve written a lot over the last 15 years, much of it bad. Perhaps a Facebook search – while I was a relatively late adapter to the social media behemoth, my college buddies make sure to tag me in photos taken from the early 2000s (few of which I’m proud of).
Again, I’m not comparing an unfortunate selfie with college cheating, but we’re now approaching a point where a candidate’s social media trail will extend their whole adult life – Tweets, Instagrams, Facebook Posts, YouTube videos chronicling the journey from teenage to middle-age. Most of them are mundane, but there are likely a few gems teed up for a political opponent to hang a 30-second campaign ad on.
We’re only about a generation removed from a time when the press sidestepped the presidents’ private life (think John F. Kennedy). Anymore, we document the minute details of our private lives for friends and strangers alike to enjoy. Moreover, the number of outlets now available to leak documents has grown; meaning the mainstream media no longer drives the narrative of a race.
After Butte Rep. Amanda Curtis was tapped as a replacement candidate for Walsh, who bowed out of the race, the Montana Republican Party spliced together a YouTube video of her commentary during the previous Legislature in which she said, among other things, “You know, as an anarchist at heart, I kind of agree with those Republican anarchist ideals. Don’t tell anyone I said that.”
For Curtis’ part, she told Lee Newspapers, “I’m not worried about anything being taken out of context in those videos, because they’re the public record. They’re available for anyone to go back and see exactly what I said and in what context I said it.”
At the highest levels, from school papers to social media posts, oppo-research departments have continued to refine the art of leaking information in and out of context. In Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s book “Double Down: Game Change 2012,” the authors include a number of anecdotes about tips that hurt or derailed various Republican presidential candidates.
There was the tip to POLITICO that Herman Cain had previously faced sexual harassment allegations. Someone working for fellow Republican candidate Jon Huntsman planted the story, according to the authors. There was Mitt Romney questioning whether London was prepared to host the Olympics. That portion of the interview never aired on NBC – instead, a staffer for President Barack Obama gleaned it from a transcript and fed it to the British press.
This is the new normal. Everything is documented and everything leaves a trail. And every candidate should expect that trail to be found.
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