Damage Control

02.18.12

Political Opposition Researcher Tells Candidates to Confess Before They’re Caught

A political opposition researcher—you pay him to dig up dirt on your opponent—says that super PAC money will finance sleuthing into everyone’s background and the only real damage control is coming clean before you’re accused.

What if Mitt Romney had put it all up on his website, before everything came out—the complete details of his gleeful slaughter of American jobs on behalf of Bain?  What if Newt Gingrich had been the one to tell us about his many odd transgressions? What if squeaky clean Rick Santorum surprised us tomorrow by cluing us in to all the juicy revelations that we know are bound to come? 

Given the tenor of the unfolding campaign season, the unsolicited confessional may just be the best new idea in politics. While there are no antidotes for certain political missteps, in many cases voters are more repulsed by the awkward follow-ups—the whining, the mendacity, the disingenuous deflections and the obvious distortions—than they are by the actual revelations. If you’re running for office and you know you did something wrong, or that may be perceived as wrong, why not come clean, explain yourself, and perhaps control the dialogue? And if you can’t come clean, why on earth are you running?

Being honest is more important than ever, now that the political debate is being commandeered by multinational corporations with the power to bankroll endless background investigations and ad campaigns. Those corporations, and other ostensibly independent groups, freed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, aren’t necessarily interested in full disclosure, or even strict adherence to the facts. Still, the combination of their money, increasing access to public records, and the proliferation of personal electronic devices with video cameras and voice recorders, means that as a publicly scrutinized candidate, your only real refuge is the truth.

My business partner and I have been political opposition researchers for 18 years. We dig up dirt on political candidates across the U.S.—both the opponents of the campaigns we work for, and our own candidates, so they’ll know how they could be attacked. Doing “self” oppo, as it’s called, doesn’t win us any popularity contests, because we have to be as objective and brutal in assessing our own candidates as we are their opponents. But it makes sense, because the other side has someone doing what we do, too. You need only look to the failed campaigns of Herman Cain and Rick Perry to understand why this sort of oppo is key. With increasing access to public records online, and now, huge infusions of corporate cash, you can bet that if there’s any damning information out there, it’s going to surface. Knowing that, why have the Republican presidential primary candidates been caught flat-footed every time?

It’s partly the result of hubris, of the inherently oversized egos of people who aspire to high elected office. But it’s also due to the failure to recognize the full impact of Citizens United on their own campaigns. This is the first presidential campaign since the ruling, which gave corporations, unions and other groups the same free-speech status as average citizens, lifting limits on the amount of money they can contribute to political campaigns, some of which is not subject to disclosure. As a direct result, super Pacs are dumping millions of dollars into political campaigns, first for opposition research, then for the related attack ads plastered across your TV screen.

Historically, corporations, unions and other independent groups were allowed to run political advocacy ads only if they were funded by conventional PACs, which are restricted to $5,000 donations each year from individuals. Now, the groups can use any source of funds for those campaigns, including the kinds of major attack ads that are being used to systematically destroy the Republican primary candidates. There is more money for oppo and there are more mechanisms for distributing the results, and the candidates the ads are designed to benefit aren’t held directly accountable.

The nascent, ongoing opposition research free-for-all means candidates can directly benefit from orchestrated attacks without being called to task for running smear campaigns—a traditional risk that we, as opposition researchers, have long been sensitive to, and which had a lot to do with the traditional secrecy of the practice.

When my partner and I began doing opposition research in the early nineties, it was a secretive endeavor. It wasn’t as easy to uncover and document the truth, and when someone tried to hinder us, we knew we were onto something. The truth can be a dangerous thing, but rather than deter us, such efforts inspire us. They tell us we’re getting warm.

Now, all bets are off. The rush to tap large, sometimes anonymous sources for political attacks is glaringly evident in the Republican presidential primary because that’s the campaign that is active right now, but it will spread in the coming months. We’re seeing the contemporary political equivalent of the unprecedented carnage during the Civil War owing to the insistence of both armies to fight under archaic strategies that did not take newly available, longer-range weapons into account. Except that we’re not just talking about conventional armies now. We’re talking about fleets of expensive, unmanned drones, capable of constant surveillance and repeated precision strikes. The lesson: come clean, candidates. We see you. Everyone does.

The truth is only dangerous if you abuse it, or if you’ve got something serious to hide. That is the case whether you’re a candidate or a corporation who undertakes oppo on a candidate’s behalf. When Mitt Romney destroyed email records from his gubernatorial administration to prevent them from falling into the hands of people like my partner and me, he was called to task for it, and rightly so. So far, Romney hasn’t suffered as much as the other candidates under the Citizens United paradigm, but he will. The Republicans aren’t the only ones with access to super PAC funds.

Super Pacs are dumping millions of dollars into political campaigns, first for opposition research, then for the related attack ads plastered across your TV screen.

The attacks will continue to ramp up in the coming months, as more time, energy, and money is focused on the narrowing field of frontrunners, and finally on the actual presidential campaign. It’s all part of the nation’s somewhat bewildering, continued exploration of the concept of free speech, which has also led the courts to strike down every effort to hold politicians and political campaigns accountable for airing falsehoods in their ads. Now that free speech can emanate from a disembodied source, we’re going to be relentlessly, continuously barraged. And to all the Democrats watching in amusement as the Republican candidates try to destroy each other, I say: enjoy it while it lasts. Those same unmanned drones will soon come looking for you.

Regardless of what you think of Citizens United (and it is a terrible ruling), the drones are flying high over everyone’s compounds, and someone, somewhere, who’s been granted virtual personhood is busy entering the coordinates and deciding who will be fired upon next. If I were running, I’d make a point of aligning myself very closely with the truth.