While researching a book a few years back, I interviewed a national political operative who let me in on a shocking campaign practice.
He said there were new businesses that would conduct opposition research on political candidates with whom they were completely unaffiliated—the business would collect a three-ring binder full of dirt on the individual, then take it to the guy they had just researched. And they would offer to sell their oppo to his campaign. If the candidate wasn’t willing to pay for the (often tawdry) research found within, they were told that their opponent likely would.
Nice campaign you got there, be a shame if something happened to it.
Over the weekend, Axios reported the Democratic National Committee was collecting “a trove” of opposition research against President Donald Trump in advance of the 2020 election. Next to being the guy in charge of polishing the Minnesota Vikings’ Super Bowl trophies, this appears to be the easiest job in America—all the team at the DNC needs is a pen to write down the things Trump says out loud.
If there is the thinnest of silver linings to the dark clouds over modern politics, it is that the extortion side of the opposition research businesses may now be out of business. Exhuming shameful information about candidates only works if the candidates are capable of feeling shame. These days, shredding a candidate for a past indiscretion or a ludicrous statement is like mocking Elton John for wearing a toupee—it’s an accepted part of the act.
And as the Democratic presidential field has shown us, these days candidates are more than willing to write the commercials against themselves.
Many of the 20-plus Democratic candidates have either been formally or informally running for office for a year or more. During that time, the field has created an artificial progressive sanctum in which positions are drawn further and further to the left. And yet it appears that none of the candidates realize it.
The race’s denouement took place last Thursday morning, when South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg suggested that people who drink from straws or eat hamburgers are “part of the problem” in America, comparing the climate change crisis to World War II and the Great Depression. (Naturally, it took Twitter users a nanosecond to exhume photos of Buttigieg drinking from straws and flipping a full grill of meat, presumably leaving a trail of eco-death in his wake.)
Buttigieg’s situational concern for the environment was the natural climax of a campaign in which candidates are falling over one another to be more preposterously out-of-touch than the others. A year ago, if you would have told Mayor Pete that he’d actually say the problem with Americans is that they’re eating hamburgers, he would have accused you of slandering him. Remember: Early in the campaign he even defended Chick fil-A from charges of homophobia, taking the common-sense approach that sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich.
But no more. We have crossed the Rubicon into breathless inanity. Republican opposition researchers no longer need to spend time poring over obscure court records or scanning through microfilm of old newspapers; they simply need to watch CNN.
Buttigieg isn’t alone. At one point, erstwhile candidate Kirsten Gillibrand said it was good for Nike to “admit when they are wrong” after the company discontinued a shoe featuring Betsy Ross’ 13-star American flag. Bernie Sanders sent other candidates scrambling to match his master-level pandering when he vigorously defended allowing terrorists to vote in American elections from their prison cells.
Future J.C. Penney outdoor-wear model Beto O’Rourke has now taken to using profanities on the campaign trail, trying to draw attention to himself by emulating a YouTube comments section. On Wednesday night, O’Rourke said his 8-year-old son told him they could no longer live in their hometown of El Paso because the city “would not sustain human life unless something dramatic changes” with regard to climate policy. (Meanwhile, my 8-year-old daughter is training our family dog to become an international spy.)
If you are a Democratic candidate, supporting a “Green New Deal”—that was defeated unanimously in the Senate—is now a litmus test for the seriousness of your candidacy. (A procedural vote to bring the bill to the floor failed 57-0, with most Democrats voting “present.”)
Offering free college and student loan forgiveness are de rigueur. Oppose reparations for African-Americans? Then you oppose getting the nomination. We actually reached a point in the last televised debate where supporting the Barack Obama administration on certain policies was enough to show you weren’t woke enough.
Not even the most sensible, established democratic norms are safe from the clutches of this campaign-drunk field. Court-packing, eliminating the Electoral College, and socialism are all once again in vogue, presumably soon to be joined by speakeasies, smallpox, and goldfish swallowing.
In fairness, the Democrats’ retreat from sanity is probably just a reaction to the Republicans’ capitulation to absurdity. Four years ago, Republicans would rightfully be outraged if a president spent his time using a Sharpie to doctor hurricane threat maps or tweeting at Debra Messing or canceling meetings with international leaders because they won’t sell him Greenland. But the GOP’s leaders have become so inured to nonsense that they simply shrug and wait for the next day’s indefensible Trump uttering.
It would only take these politicians one day outside of their campaign bubbles to realize that they’ve become walking punchlines. Among those in the Democratic field, who is going to be the one to stand up, and condemn things like painting over murals of George Washington?
When the more reasonable Democrats shut their campaigns down and finally take some time to breathe fresh air, they’re going to be ashamed at the things they said during this stressful period.
But at least they’re bypassing the oppo-research profiteers and showing voters their worst selves without having been blackmailed.