Saturday, June 14, 2008

Who's smearing who?

There has been a good deal of indignation -- see Malkin, Limbaugh, Red State, Townhall, Sundries Shack, AmSpec -- about the efforts of Team Obama to blame conservatives for the Michelle Obama "whitey" video rumor, which in fact was fueled by Hillary Clinton supporter Larry Johnson.

This reminded me of an incident most people have probably forgotten by now: The infamous "Obama madrassa" story of January 2007. This story resulted in my friend, Insight editor Jeff Kuhner, getting burned by his sources.

What Insight reported was that the Clinton campaign was preparing to use Obama's biography against him, claiming that while a boy Indonesia, young Barack had attended an Islamic school. This was the lede of the Insight story:
Are the American people ready for an elected president who was educated in a Madrassa as a young boy and has not been forthcoming about his Muslim heritage?
This is the question Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s camp is asking about Sen. Barack Obama.
An investigation of Mr. Obama by political opponents within the Democratic Party has discovered that Mr. Obama was raised as a Muslim by his stepfather in Indonesia. Sources close to the background check, which has not yet been released, said Mr. Obama, 45, spent at least four years in a so-called Madrassa, or Muslim seminary, in Indonesia.
"He was a Muslim, but he concealed it," the source said. "His opponents within the Democrats hope this will become a major issue in the campaign."
Carefully note how this story is sourced: Persons "close to the background check" -- that is, an opposition-research action by Clinton campaign operatives -- told this to Insight.

The problem for Insight was that all the sources used in the article spoke on condition of anonymity. With such a bombshell allegation -- that one campaign is attempting to confirm negative information on a rival -- you just can't do that, and my friend Kuhner quickly discovered why. Hillary's campaign denied conducting any such research, and both her campaign and Obama's campaign accused Insight of spreading a scurrilous right-wing smear.

Kuhner has never told me anything about his sources, but both privately and publicly, he's never backed down from the original story which (I must repeat) was about the Clinton campaign's opposition-research effort.

It seems possible that someone in Hillary's camp was playing a very familiar campaign game: "We can't confirm that this rumor about our opponent is true, but let's at least make him deny it." This has the benefit of throwing the opponent on the defensive, and making some undecided voters ask themselves, "Hey, what's this guy hiding?"

Such tactics, however, are usually employed in the closing days of a campaign: the last-minute, hard-to-handle smear, so the opponent doesn't have adequate time to fully repond. (A Republican friend of mine once got hit by such an attack -- a particularly vicious personal smear -- in the closing days of a hard-fought GOP primary.)

This is why the "Obama madrassa" story always puzzled me. If the Hillary campaign was researching Obama's Indonesian education, why wouldn't they wait until they'd confirmed something, and then put it out? Why leak it out in such a half-baked fashion, so early in the campaign?

What this leads me to suspect is that Kuhner got his original tip via an unauthorized or secondary source -- somebody who knew somebody directly involved in the oppo-research project. This would be a "loose lips sink ships" type of leak: The spouse or business associate of the researcher has a few drinks and decides to brag a bit: "Hey, let me tell you about this ...." And so then you contact the reseacher and say, "Hey, so-and-so told me that ...."

There's a lot of different ways news gets reported, and I'm just guessing here. But if my hunch is right, then whoever was researching the Indonesia angle on Obama was never authorized to tell anyone about it, and it may have been that the Clinton campaign never actually intended to use that angle.

Oppo-research is sort of like war-planning: Somewhere on the shelf at the Pentagon there's probably a war-game plan for an attack on Canada, just in case. And so the Obama-madrassa angle might have been something that was gathered, and stuck into a file somewhere at Clinton HQ, without any actual intention to use it. Except that the guy who was doing the research didn't know that.

The bottom line is that all major campaigns conduct opposition research. Democrats want to pretend that the "right-wing attack machine" has a monopoly on dirty politics, but as the recent primary campaign demonstrated, Democrats are perfectly capable of getting down in the gutter and throwing mudballs, without any help from the GOP.

So the next time Democrats claim that any negative information about their nominee is a "right-wing smear," don't forget the very first big hunk of dirt that was flung in this campaign -- dirt that my friend Jeff Kuhner swears to this day was unearthed by Team Hillary and given to him by her research operatives.

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