Playing Dirty

This year's presidential campaign is already shaping up to be even more negative than the last. That's no accident. Our correspondent looks at the cloak-and-dagger world of opposition research—the updated version of "dirty tricks"

As voters turn their attention toward the coming presidential election, an abiding question from the previous one frustrates Democrats: How is it, they wonder, that Al Gore told small fibs and was branded a liar while George W. Bush told big ones and was elected President? Gore's many exaggerations may have been foolish—that he had somehow invented the Internet, that he grew up on a Tennessee farm, and so on. But surely, this line of thinking goes, they paled alongside Bush's audacious claim that he could cut taxes by $1.3 trillion, effortlessly privatize Social Security, and still balance the budget.

A large part of the answer can be found in a BBC documentary titled Digging the Dirt, which was filmed during the 2000 campaign and never aired in the United States. The film centers on a team of Republican opposition researchers —a species that has existed in politics for eons but had recently undergone an evolutionary leap. From deep within the Republican National Committee headquarters the BBC tracked the efforts of this team, whose job it was to discredit and destroy Al Gore.

Political campaigns always attempt to diminish their opponents, of course. What was remarkable about the 2000 effort was the degree to which the process advanced beyond what Barbara Comstock, who headed the RNC research team, calls "votes and quotes"—the standard campaign practice of leaving the job of scouting the target to very junior staff members, who tend to dig up little more than a rival's legislative record and public statements. Comstock's taking over the research team marked a significant change. She was a lawyer and a ten-year veteran of Capitol Hill who had been one of Representative Dan Burton's top congressional investigators during the Clinton scandals that dominated the 1990s: Filegate, Travelgate, assorted campaign-finance imbroglios, and Whitewater. Rather than amass the usual bunch of college kids, Comstock put together a group of seasoned attorneys and former colleagues from the Burton Committee, including her deputy, Tim Griffin. "The team we had from 2000," she told me recently, to show the degree of ratcheted-up professionalism, "were veteran investigators from the Clinton years. We had a core group of people, and that core was attorneys."

Comstock combined a prosecutor's mentality with an investigator's ability to hunt through public records and other potentially incriminating documents. More important, she and her team understood how to use opposition research in the service of a larger goal: not simply to embarrass Gore with hard-to-explain votes or awkward statements but to craft over the course of the campaign a negative "storyline" about him that would eventually take hold in the public mind. "A campaign is a lot like a trial," Comstock explained. "You want people aggressively arguing their case."

Maligning an opponent, even with his own words and deeds, is a tricky business; voters take a dim view of "negative" politics, and are liable to punish the campaign carrying out the attacks rather than the intended target. Digging the Dirt provides a rare glimpse of how political operatives have learned to use the media to get around this problem, by creating a journalistic black market for damaging stories. During the first debate between Gore and Bush, in October of 2000, the BBC crew stationed itself inside the RNC's war room, filming researchers as they operated with the manic intensity of day traders, combing through every one of Gore's statements for possible misstatements or exaggerations. The researchers discovered two (Gore erroneously claimed never to have questioned Bush's experience, and to have accompanied a federal official to the site of a Texas disaster), and immediately Tim Griffin tipped off the Associated Press. Soon the filmmakers would catch the team exulting as the AP took the story.

Similar scenarios occurred countless times, on both sides, during the campaign. The operatives' sophisticated understanding of the media and their ability to manipulate the reporting of political news helps explain how Gore's public image shifted from that of stiff but competent technocrat at the outset of the campaign to that of serial exaggerator who would say anything to get elected. The steady stream of stories reinforcing this notion took its toll—a fact neatly documented by the filmmakers' shot of the New York Post after the debate: Gore beneath the headline "LIAR! LIAR!"

One film scene of the debate-night frenzy captures the prevalent attitude in national politics. As he directs the investigation of Gore's statements in real time, Griffin, standing next to a sign that reads ON MY COMMAND—UNLEASH HELL (ON AL), pauses for a moment to reflect on his role. "We think of ourselves as the creators of the ammunition in a war," he says. "We make the bullets."

The Gore campaign also deployed researchers, directed by Chris Lehane, who made his name spinning for the White House during the Clinton scandals and who by reputation is the most feared and loathed Democrat in the "oppo" world. Under Lehane the campaign portrayed Bush as an amiable dunce—a charge supported by many of Bush's actions but one that backfired, by so diminishing expectations that Bush prospered in the debates that doomed Gore.

After Bush's victory Comstock moved on to the Justice Department, and Griffin turned his considerable skills to prosecuting federal drug and firearms cases. Not long ago the RNC brought Griffin back in anticipation of this year's election, and in an indication of just how closely research and communications are intertwined, took the unusual step of bestowing two titles on him: director of opposition research and deputy communications director. From the same room in which he brought down Al Gore, Griffin is leading his team against John Kerry.

The campaign against Gore illustrates how what Bill Clinton referred to as "the politics of personal destruction" has become institutionalized and grimly respectable. Clinton popularized the phrase during his impeachment, when public disgust over years of scandal and partisan warfare had peaked. To avoid backlash, campaigns have become much more careful about attacking their opponents. Shrewd politicians can exploit this anger and still engage in hardball tactics—as Bush did by pledging to be "a uniter, not a divider," even as colleagues unleashed hell on Gore.

A decade ago opposition research was largely the domain of college kids. Today it is a profession run by seasoned investigators, most of whom learned their craft on one side or another of the Clinton scandals (Comstock, Griffin, and David Bossie for the Republicans; Lehane, his partner Mark Fabiani, and Kerry's research director Mike Gehrke for the Democrats). The elite purveyors of "personal destruction"—whom Clinton both feared and employed—have become the leading lights in the low-lit world of opposition research. The prosecutorial tactics and general savagery honed during the Clinton years are the hallmarks of their work. Instead of at high-profile congressional hearings, these battles are conducted from the shadows and waged mostly through the media. As the 2000 election showed, Republicans are particularly adept combatants. Moreover, in John Kerry they have the advantage of an opponent who is largely undefined in the public's thinking. And as in 2000, the election will depend a great deal on how successful Republicans are at the dark art of opposition research.

From the archives:

"The Front-Runner's Fall" (May 2004)
The Dean implosion up close, from the vantage point of the candidate's pollster. By Paul Maslin

From the archives:

Interviews: "Inside the Dean Campaign" (April 8, 2004)
Howard Dean's political pollster talks about the campaign's extraordinary rise and crashing fall.

Democrats may not have been successful using research against Bush, but they have fared much better deploying it against each other. One prominent Democrat has already fallen victim this year—though the attack was orchestrated within his own party. By last fall Howard Dean had achieved the unlikely status of front-runner in the crowded race for the Democratic nomination. Yet for all his popularity, the public knew little about him. He had built a following almost overnight, mainly because of his strident opposition to the Iraq War and a visceral anger toward the Bush Administration that other candidates were thought to lack. By the time Gore endorsed him, on December 9, Dean's victory in the upcoming primaries seemed assured.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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