The Real Secret of the Secret Ashley Judd Tape: It's Politics as Usual

With all due respect to Mother Jones's conversation-leaker-in-chief David Corn, the recordings published today of a conversation between Sen. Mitch McConnell and some consultants disparaging Ashley Judd is not that big a deal. It's the sausage being made.

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With all due respect to Mother Jones's conversation-leaker-in-chief David Corn, the recordings published today of a conversation between Sen. Mitch McConnell and some consultants disparaging Ashley Judd is not news. It's the sausage being made.

We've got full background here, but the toplines are this: Corn got hold of a conversation apparently recorded during a presentation by consultants to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's reelection campaign. The consultants were opposition researchers, hired by the campaign to ferret out damaging information about actress Ashley Judd, who at one point considered running against McConnell. And the researchers (sometimes called an "oppo team") dug up a lot of damaging information.

Let's get one thing out of the way. McConnell's team has suggested that the recording came by way of a microphone planted in the office and has indicated that it has contacted the FBI to investigate. No need. The most likely candidate for who made the recording is the research team doing the presentation.

Notice how much closer the microphone is to the presenter of the data than to McConnell.


The presenter:

Recording such a meeting is common practice. Consultants often do so in order to capture the discussion and feedback from clients. So if you're the FBI agent assigned to this lowly investigation, a tip: start at the consultant's offices.

With that mystery solved, another remains: What's the point of this leak?

Corn, the reporter who brought the world Romney's "47 percent" remarks, describes the contents of the tape as follows. (The full transcript is here.)

[After a campaign event, McConnell] was huddling with aides in a private meeting to discuss how to attack his possible Democratic foes, including actor/activist Ashley Judd, who was then contemplating challenging the minority leader. During this strategy session—a recording of which was obtained by Mother Jones—McConnell and his aides considered assaulting Judd for her past struggles with depression and for her religious views.

There are two highly pertinent words to pull out of that paragraph. The first is "considered." The second is "including."

Ashley Judd — an outspoken Hollywood actress — was a ripe target for attack. While rumors flew that she might run, conservative media outlets — particularly the Daily Caller — bashed Judd for exactly the flaws that McConnell's researchers identified. Judd is a prominent liberal, an environmental activist, an author who's written about her past bouts with depression and her views on family. Most opponents a politician might face would have a voting record to pore over, but very few honest enunciations of controversial core values. For someone running for office in a deeply conservative state like Kentucky, Judd offered a lot of fodder. As the research team said on the tape, "there's a haystack of needles, just because truly, there’s such a wealth of material."

What the researcher is saying, in short, is that he likes candidates like Judd. He's no doubt seen research on lots of candidates — some of whom have more weaknesses, some of whom have less — but all of whom have gone under this scrutiny. If you're running for Senate, your opponent will do exactly the sort of research McConnell's team did. If you're running for governor, state Assembly, whatever — opposition research is a very, very, very common exercise. How common is oppo research? Judd did it on herself. Political campaigns with any decently sized budget do oppo research early enough that they can include a candidate's flaws in polling. That polling then determines ad budgets and campaign expenditures. And at that point, campaigns decide how to use an opponent's "negatives" against him or her.

Corn's tape is of an initial meeting between the consultant and the campaign. Once such research is complete, the researchers present what's known as an "oppo book," the full catalog of the opponent's flaws, and then walk through areas of particular weakness. For the campaign, it's always a gleeful moment, however ugly that might be. It's the first real opportunity to say: Here's how we know we're going to win. Since candidates rarely look fondly on opponents, the tone can easily be pretty hostile.

Which brings us that word: "considered." Corn writes that "McConnell and his aides considered assaulting Judd" on various aspects of her past. Do not misunderstand: The path from "considered" to "acted upon" is very, very long. A campaign with the budget and experience of McConnell's would understand that a negative attack bears its own risk. Particularly for an opponent that faced an uphill battle, as some polling showed Judd did, there was little incentive for McConnell's team to launch virulent, cruel personal attacks against her. They got the oppo book and got excited. That happens. Almost never do those worst impulses make it onto the air or into campaign literature.

They do, however, often make it into the press. A much better question to ask is whether or not the McConnell team leaked any of what they'd uncovered to the Daily Caller or other outlets. The campaign ran one anti-Judd spot, but it was light on the attacks. Letting the media do the dirty work instead is a time-honored tradition — and itself not a pleasant one to contemplate.

That idea comes up when we turn our attention to the other word: "including." Judd was not the only target for the researchers. At the end of the transcript, the researcher mentions Matthew Bevins, a potential primary candidate for McConnell (if not the likely one). Indicating that it wasn't only Judd who faced this scrutiny, McConnell's team ran oppo on other possible opponents as well, including Republicans. Because this is what you do — particularly early in a campaign. The transcript leads with this quote from the senator (which is also the audio above):

If I could interject…I assume most of you have played the, the game Whac-A-Mole? [Laughter.] This is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign…when anybody sticks their head up, do them out …

That's the context for the meeting. The campaign's goal is to find what they can on opponents and use that information to keep them out of the race. If Matthew Bevins had some skeleton in his closet — say, a photo of him embracing Obama — McConnell allies could use that to discourage Bevins from launching a challenge to the leader's seat. Or if an opponent had missed child support payments, or had a drunk driving charge, or one of a million things, pressure could be applied. It's unlikely that McConnell needed to aid conservative blogs in uncovering damaging information on Judd, but doing so fits squarely with the stated Whac-A-Mole strategy. Here, Judd wasn't the only mole.

All of which is to say that McConnell's team is guilty of nothing but running a modern political campaign. Yes, it can be unpleasant to hear disparagement of Judd's earnest feelings on various issues, but a recording of nearly any such meeting, regardless of political party, would elicit similar reactions and mockery. Considering how to undermine a political opponent is not how one acts in polite society, but it is part and parcel of closed-door campaign meetings. Von Bismarck's warning about laws and sausages holds true for political campaigns as well.

This is how your sausage is made, America. Unpleasant. But Mitch McConnell didn't invent the practice. He didn't even end up selling you that sausage.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.