Musings —02.16.2012 11:56 AM—
Here’s what I wrote in The War Room:
[Opposition research] doesn’t mean prying into [a political opponent’s] personal life; if you do that, looking for dirt, it says more about you than it does about your opponent.
When getting tough with an opponent — in paid media (with advertisements) or in earned media (with a pithy quote) — there are three rules you must always observe. One, the critical statement of fact you are making about your opponent has to be scrupulously accurate. No ifs, ands, or buts. Check it a dozen times, then check it again. Two, the allegation you are making must be an even-handed take on the facts — that is, it can’t be so wildly out of context that it offends people’s sense of fairness. It should heap ridicule on an opponent, not invite it against you. Three, the critical statement must be on the public record — what is sometimes called “quotes and votes.” Nothing about a person’s personal life.
Most of the time, opposition research focuses upon a politician’s public life — the votes he or she made in the legislature, the curriculum vitae he or she bragged about, the travel costs he or she passed along to the taxpayer. Few folks would argue that an opponent’s public record should be exempt from scrutiny. It is one of the main ways, and sometimes the only way, voters can make informed choices on Election Day. A louder debate, naturally, rages about the ethicality of probing a politician’s personal life. Is it fair to publicize long-ago bounced cheques, or drug use, or draft dodging? Is it right? As a rule, and as I’ve said before, I don’t like it.
[Carville] got on TV and told the truth about what was really going on: namely, that the Republicans and the Clinton-hating conservative media were trying to turn the personal into the political, trying to transform sex into an impeachable offence. Throughout this period, I observed what Carville was doing very carefully. I took notes, even. His handle-scandal strategy worked — and the proof of that was found in polling. The vast majority of Americans agreed with the essence of what Carville was saying. At the height of the scandal, a Pew Research Centre poll found that, even among Republicans, only 36 percent saw the controversy as very important, and only 33 percent were following it very closely. Clinton’s approval ratings went up, not down.
And so on.
I recall one day in the fall of 2009 when those of us who were assisting Michael Ignatieff heard a rumour about the personal life of a prominent Conservative politician. I and others spoke to Ignatieff about it. He said to us, with fire in his eyes: “If any member of my staff – anyone – is found to be circulating this crap, they will be fired immediately. Am I clear?”
That was the right and ethical position to take. Fight your opponents aggressively, for sure: that has always been my credo. But leave spouses and children out of it. It’s not fair to them. And it reflects badly on you.
Geoff Hall and Jordan Owens, former Ignatieff staffers, are you listening?