Now that we have dirt on everyone

January 11, 2012

Has opposition research finally reached a big fat dead end?

Not that there is no fresh dirt to dig up on candidates. Each day, the morning editions bring us additional sleaze, flip-flops, and embarrassments from the candidates’ pasts, some of which comes ladled from oppo-researcher notebooks. We learn about our candidates’ legislative histories, their leveraged buyout histories (that would be you, Mitt and Newt), their adventures on K Street (take a bow, Newt and Rick #2), the filth and fury discovered in their back pages (hello, Ron!), the casual racism of a parent (Rick #1), and their military resumes (if they have one). And if they’ve generated any sort of paper trail from tax liens, divorce proceedings, campaign-finance filings, or civil actions—or if there is reusable disgrace from past campaigns—we read and re-read all about it, too.

But how much of this stuff actually sticks anymore? Beyond the undoing of Herman Cain’s candidacy by an avalanche of romancing-while-married stories, it’s hard to imagine any campaign revelation that, by itself, could burn any of the current candidates out of the current race or remain sufficiently hot to scald them in November’s general election. Dirt just doesn’t stain like it once did. (Even if some of this dirt sticks, it won’t alter the outcome for candidates like Rick Perry. The worst that could happen for him is to go from 1 percent to 0 percent support.)

That’s not how the political operatives feel. Today, Talking Points Memo reports how bummed the Democrats are that Newt Gingrich has already attacked Romney with the Bain story. Democrats had been holding Bain in reserve to use against Romney in the general election—as they did in 1994 in his race against Sen. Edward Kennedy (D, Mass.)—to portray Romney as a vulture capitalist of the most craven sort.

The past no longer matters to the political present the way it once did, because we have such better access to it today. Just 15 years ago, investigations of politicians and opposition research were largely limited to professionals with access to Lexis-Nexis or those who knew how to conduct a document search at the county courthouse. Digging dirt back then was like mining gold in the 1800s: labor intensive, and requiring both expertise and expensive tools. Widespread digitization and cheap information technologies haven’t eliminated the professionals from political dirt digging, only lowered the barriers to entry.

Leaping over those low barriers this cycle is Andrew Kaczynski, a 22-year-old history major at St. John’s University, who quarried C-SPAN archives for political gotchas and posted more than 160 of them on his YouTube channel, alerting the press to the best, he tells me.

“Once the channel took off I really didn’t need to send them to anyone because [they] could just go to my page and click refresh and see my latest upload,” Kaczynski says.

By December, Kaczynski’s diligent work on Romney, Paul, and Gingrich had earned him short profiles in New York and the New York Observer and an appearance on Howard Kurtz’s Reliable Sources. He quickly landed a job at BuzzFeed, where he now burrows into the political archives for a living. Today he posted a lovely cap-and-trade flip-flop by Jon Huntsman.

Kaczynski’s skill at dragging skeletons—and a few chicken bones—out of politicians’ closets indicates that soon, everything in a politician’s fossil record that can be retrieved will be retrieved– whether it be by oppo researchers, journalists, activists, or citizens–and put on display: Every utterance, every court filing, every public transaction, every burp, every miscue. By the time the technology really gets kicking, the new transparency will make Kim Kardashian look like a privacy hound.

Under the old rules, the only good defense to oppo research has been a good offense. In a recent Reuters piece, opposition researcher Jeff Berkowitz advised campaigns to conduct preemptive oppo-research (“vulnerability studies”) so they can develop a “response matrix” to repel anticipated attacks. Romney, as TPM notes, had kept his Bain defenses refreshed, knowing the issue would resurface.

But the velocity and volume of revelations coming out of Campaign 2012 suggest that oppo-defense won’t be able to keep pace with oppo research much longer, especially for politicians like Gingrich who have been in the game for four decades. Maybe it won’t happen this campaign, but I can see the day that a complete documentation on every politician of note, produced on the Web in Wikipedia fashion, would make opposition research redundant. When that day comes, we’ll finally be able to see our candidates in full and see that nearly every one of them has flip-flopped; made a fortune from either honest graft or dishonest graft; mistreated, divorced, or cheated on a spouse; taken drugs; lied; cheated; violated taboos; told dirty, racist, or otherwise tasteless jokes; stretched the fabric of the campaign finance laws; associated with bad people; engaged in resume inflation; taken dubious payments; or otherwise transgressed—just like you.

When the day of the Super Dossier comes, and it may even come by 2016, the power of the Web will teach us that nobody has enough character (Nixon? Clinton? GWB?) to be president. At that point, maybe all this standard human frailty will have become sufficiently normalized that we’ll have to pick our chief executive based on the policies and programs he binds himself to pursuing.


A word to the wise: If you’re working inside government, be careful about doing oppo research while on the clock. Authorities busted Pennsylvania state legislature employees for using state Nexis accounts to dig for dirt at the behest of Democrats in 2006. Send fresh dirt to and monitor my Twitter feed for my transgressions. Which are many. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: Participants cross a mud obstacle during the Wild Boar Dirt Run (Wild Sau Dirt Run) in Laaben, 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of Vienna, October 22, 2011. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner


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I have a strange suggestion: instead of trying to “dig up dirt” on candidates like some supermarket tabloid, how about taking a long, hard look at their ability to do the job properly in terms of taking care of the needs of the American people?

Maybe then we would get the leaders we deserve, instead of the “rejects” who happen to make it unscathed through the “witch hunt” that precedes our elections.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

Isn’t much of this column indebted to Mickey Kaus’s old notion of the Feiler Faster Thesis? Basically, there’s no way to hold back oppo dirt in contemporary politics, but, on the other hand, that dirt wont have the staying power of traditional oppo research (it will be just so much noise, whereas in the old media world it could dominate).

The real test of this will be if/when any kind of October surprise occurs in a Presidential election…

Posted by JProf | Report as abusive

Mud slinging is still a prisoner’s dilemma, though. This kind of information trend isn’t likely to stop it. It happens because it works. Not everyone is as rational in the author of this article when considering for whom to vote. Access to more information is likely just to increase negative campaigning efforts. #cynical

Posted by Snake.Plissken | Report as abusive

> “Authorities busted Pennsylvania state legislature employees for using state Nexis accounts to dig for dirt at the behest of Democrats in 2006.”

The anticipation of this kind of foul play, strikes me as the most reasonable explanation for why Governor Mitt Romney and his staff purchased their hard drives before leaving Massachusetts… As long as it was legal, it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do when confronted with such hostility. All I want to know is what was done and why (the minutes from the main meetings, please). I don’t need to know what was said or what confidences divulged in private conversation, unless serious wrongdoing is discovered on the first two questions…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

I’m all for the idea of unfettered access to details about the candidates, but far more important to me than the personal details is their funding sources & their circles of association. I think we’ll have a much better chance of anticipating the depredations coming our way if we know that stuff.

Posted by pumpkin3142 | Report as abusive