On a recent sweltering Wednesday in Washington, D.C., when most of the town had cleared out for the upcoming Fourth of July weekend, Adrienne Elrod was at a desk piled high with books—among them both of Hillary Clinton’s memoirs and the 2008 campaign pot-boiler Game Change—emailing with a reporter from BuzzFeed about a small item running later that evening.
Elrod is the communications director for Correct the Record, a 6-month-old outfit founded by David Brock, the one-time conservative dirty trickster who in the 1990s turned over a new leaf and started Media Matters, which keeps a watchful eye on the latest talk radio or Fox News outrage. The new group was created to, well, correct the record, particularly the right-wing attacks on Hillary Clinton as she mulls a 2016 presidential run.
The 20 or so staff members at Correct the Record, glued to computers in a loft-like space on Massachusetts Avenue, next to Brock’s own office, were engaged that afternoon in pushing back on a narrative emerging that sales of Clinton’s latest memoir, Hard Choices, were tanking.
“If we hadn’t already seen three articles on this, before the bestseller list was even out, we wouldn’t be doing this,” said Burns Strider, a genial bear of a Mississippian. He was surrounded by Elrod, an Arkansan and former operative with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and two other aides who barely looked up from their MacBooks. On the walls around them were photos of Clinton at various periods of her career—looking regal at the State Department, shaggy with Bill in their Yale Law School days.
The idea for CTR came to Brock during the Benghazi hearings on Capitol Hill. With Clinton not there to defend herself, having left her post as secretary of state, the right wing was having a field day, Brock says.
“There was no, or limited, capacity for her to deal with the range of attacks, coming mainly from Capitol Hill but echoed elsewhere,” Brock told The Daily Beast. Plus, there were already a half-dozen or so right-wing super PACs that had Clinton in their sights, none more serious than America Rising, an opposition research outfit founded to counter some of Brock’s efforts.
That group is run by Tim Miller, a 30-something former aide to Jon Huntsman who, Strider huffed, “must have, like, a Ph.D. in snark.” (Indeed, on the PAC’s website at the moment are GIFs of George Constanza, The Office, and Mr. Potato Head lifting a dumbbell, each meant to highlight some dunderheaded comment from a Democrat.)
Strider and his team see Miller and America Rising as their dark shadow, if a somewhat unserious one, throwing whatever they can against the wall to see what sticks.
“They throw out stuff, like, 10 times a day. The RNC has a damn squirrel following her around! I mean—they have a squirrel!” Strider said in disbelief, referring to the Republican National Committee intern tasked with stalking Clinton’s appearances in a squirrel mascot outfit, wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Another Clinton in the White House is NUTS.”
According to Elrod, Correct the Record is trying its best to avoid the kind of flack-on-flack combat that is a hallmark of political campaigns, especially in the era of Twitter and all-night news-athons, preferring to stick to the facts and work by subterfuge.
“We are strategic about how we get our facts out there,” she said, pointing out that her group tends to push out its own research to friendly reporters. “A lot of what we do doesn’t have our fingerprints on it.”
So far, there have been only a few exceptions to that rule. When Miller and America Rising put out a hit on President Clinton for boasting about how he had given away several $550 watches to friends, Correct the Record did respond, noting that the watches came from the Shinola company, a Detroit success story. “So not only were they anti-Clinton, but they were anti-American small business and anti-generosity!” cackled Strider.
And when America Rising put out a surprise e-book on Clinton’s time at the State Department, researchers at Correct the Record had, according to Isaac Wright, a Democratic consultant brought on by Brock, “within two hours on a Sunday night debunked everything they had in that book. That book went nowhere. It quite deservedly landed in the trash.”
A bigger question facing the new outfit, however, is how to manage press operations from a non-campaign campaign when Clinton is the best-known figure in American political life—according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 1 percent of respondents did not have an opinion about her—and when news outlets have proliferated since she was last approaching a race.
“There is no exact science. The first thing you look at is, is it getting any traction? And we start getting reports on Twitter or Facebook, or other reporters picking it up, and see where is it going,” said Strider. “You may still hold off, or you may go balls to the wall for whatever reason.”
If something is going to stay in conservative precincts, Correct the Record prefers to keep it there rather than respond and fan the flames further.
“You can almost tell what things she says will get mischaracterized,” said Elrod. “You can tell what is going to end up in The Daily Caller, what is going to get picked up by the Free Beacon, and which are going to move more into the mainstream. We try to always have a prepared response, but we wait to see what moves.”
Brock and his staff expressed frustration that mainstream outlets, The New York Times chief among them, have dedicated reporters to covering Clinton long before she has announced a potential candidacy.
“Some venues say that the job is to write on her once a day, or write on her five times a week or something, which puts a number value on the article, instead of a value of content,” said Strider. “I think that deserves a little discussion from the other side. You know it is getting rough when you turn on Morning Joe and they are criticizing themselves for covering Hillary so much.”
Part of the point of Correct the Record is to make sure that Democrats don’t get caught flat-footed the way they did in 2004. Then, long before the days of super PACs, wealthy Republicans funded ads that questioned John Kerry’s war record. At the time, the attacks seemed absurd to Democrats; the Massachusetts senator was a decorated Vietnam veteran, and George W. Bush’s service record was spotty at best.
“I think Democrats to this day tend to have Swift Boaters right over our shoulder,” said Strider. “We tend to worry. We saw what happened to Senator Kerry, and while it was happening, everyone thought, ‘This can’t work. This guy’s got medals.’ Well, they had a free ride for a good long while before there was an honest-to-God response. I think on some level Democrats think of that and say, ‘Never again.’”
If Kerry got it bad in 2004, Obama in 2008, with his funny name and exotic upbringing, surely had it far worse. That year, the campaign devoted a significant part of its outreach to a “Fight the Smears” effort to beat back rumors that their candidate was Muslim or born in another country. And even though a British tabloid occasionally picks up a story about Obama’s divorce or has some anonymous first-person account of his cocaine habit, no American political figure has undergone quite the onslaught that Hillary Clinton has in her nearly three decades on the national scene.
“I think it is fair to say that it has always been the case that the media interest in the Clintons seems wide and deep,” said Brock. “The right thinks, and there is a history going back 20 years, that the Clintons have been very good for business. They are magnets for money on the Republican and conservative side, and a lot of this anti-Clinton stuff can be seen as a business.”
Recently, staffers at Correct the Record have been surprised to discover that the stories they need to push back on are not about Clinton’s book tour, or her time as secretary of state, or even her stint in the U.S. Senate, but her time as first lady, or even more surprisingly, her time as first lady of Arkansas, if not before.
When the Free Beacon discovered diaries of Diane Blair, the late friend of Hillary Clinton, that revealed Clinton’s thoughts during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the CTR staff thought it was old news but still flew someone down to Little Rock the next day. By that evening, their staffer was poring through the files at the University of Arkansas. When an uproar arose more recently over Clinton’s role as a public defender in a Little Rock rape case, the group helped arrange interviews with Mahlon Gibson, the prosecutor in the case whom Elrod and Brock knew from their Arkansas days. Gibson told CNN and others that Clinton was appointed to the case and expressed reservations about it at the time.
Such retread stories from the past, they say, do not worry them.
“When [Kentucky Sen.] Rand [Paul] cranks up his old hits from the ’70s, it is such a waste of time,” said Burns. “Certainly those events helped shape the character of the people we all are today, but you know, the people who remember it aren’t interested in reliving it. I remember the last night of disco. People burned that damn stadium down…Campaigns are about the future. It is all they have, so they are working it.
“Sometimes when somebody brings up one of [the scandals of the past], you see all the old hands come out of the woodwork. I mean, good lord. What is that woman’s name—Maureen Dowd? Peggy Noonan. It’s like they want to get one more shot at their glory years in their 40s, and they are all going at it again, all giddy.”
But if a well-turned phrase by Dowd or Noonan can no longer set tongues wagging like it did in the ’90s, the ability of rapid responders to punch back is equally limited. In the last 24 hours, 365 news articles were devoted to Hillary Clinton, according to Google. There have been dozens of tweets just in the last few minutes, including, “Perhaps Hillary Clinton should have thought about who her husband was before naming her book ‘Hard Choices…’ Just sayin…” and “Name 1 thing Hillary Clinton has ever accomplished? As 1st lady? As Senator? As Secretary of State? You CAN’T! She has accomplished nothing!” Never mind whatever podcast, Vine, Tumblr, talk radio host or triple-digit cable network is spouting off about at the moment.
How can any one response team keep up? And, for that matter, why should they?
“In the old days, rapid response meant you convince NBC or whomever that the story was bogus and don’t run it,” said Paul Begala, a Brock ally (and former Daily Beast columnist) running his own super PAC. “In this citizen journalism age, you can’t do that anymore. Somebody is going to run it anyway. All you can do is push back with the facts. I can come up with the hyperbole, don’t worry about that, but give me the facts and the data and the quote in context.”
As Begala, who was chief strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, sees it, the impetus behind the conservative attacks on Hillary Clinton now is not so much to change perceptions about her, since she is so well-known, but to drive down enthusiasm. If there is an idea afoot that Clinton is soft on rapists, for example, then maybe key parts of her coalition, like young women, will stay home.
Some Democratic communicators told The Daily Beast that they thought Correct the Record’s time would be better spent on offense. With the group’s resources, it could track what the top GOP 2016 contenders were doing, much as its bête noire, America Rising, is doing to Clinton, and pull out embarrassing comments made when Paul, Ted Cruz, and others think no one is really listening.
And the very idea that the Clintons already have a group pushing back on negative stories about them plays into one of the persistent themes of Clinton world—that they are too sensitive to slights and press criticism, and so need an outside entity to defend them even during an ostensible non-campaign period. It was Hillary Clinton, after all, who invented the modern-day campaign war room back in 1992, Begala said.
Brock, naturally, disputes this point.
“To the extent that there is a sensitivity, it is almost a wholly warranted sensitivity,” he said. “I would say someone could write a book about the unfair treatment of the Clintons, but I already did.”
But the main question facing Correct the Record is what becomes of it once Clinton embarks on a full-scale campaign. In the era of super PACs, almost everything a campaign does can be outsourced—get-out-the-vote drives, advertising, and the like. Keeping a rapid response operation offsite could double its firepower, or it could mean two entities tripping over each other, adding to the noise.
“This is kind of a new chapter being written about how it is being done,” said Strider. “It’s death-defying. You are either writing a whole new chapter on how to win, or you know, you blew it.”