When Plagiarism Doesn't Matter

Scott Walker's Democratic challenger is facing heat for copying policy ideas from other candidates. But many other contenders, from both parties, have used similar tactics.

Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, a Democrat, and Senate candidate Monica Wehby, an Oregon Republican, have something in common. They're among the most prominent politicians to be caught cribbing policy language from outside sources. Both of their candidacies have been playing damage control in response to the revelations reported by Buzzfeed last month.

But they also have something else uncomfortably in common with many other candidates for top office. Congressional and gubernatorial challengers rarely have time to fully outline their detailed policy positions, or boast the resources to hire policy advisers. All too often, the policies listed by candidates on their websites are warmed-over talking points that are nearly identical to others from the same party.

Indeed, some of the top gubernatorial recruits of this year's election, including the Democrat favored to become the next governor of Pennsylvania, have been enmeshed in policy-copying controversies. Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf's campaign was caught lifting parts of its policy plan from an energy-equipment business. More recently, the GOP's highly touted candidate for governor in Connecticut, Tom Foley, was caught taking think-tank language without attribution.

"There are simply not enough hours in the day to raise money, campaign, run their offices, and sleep," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic media consultant. "So staffers become more important. And when you trust staff, sometimes you put your trust in people who are overwhelmed.... Politics is an overwhelming job today. There is no time because the cycle doesn't stop, and therefore people are prone to error."

Candidates have been quick to blame the theft on staffers. Foley's campaign apologized for "sloppy staff work" that led to plagiarized material appearing in his urban-policy proposal. The Burke campaign attributed the minor mistake to an outside consultant, who included in Burke's jobs plan verbatim sections of platforms from other Democratic gubernatorial candidates such as Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Tennessee's Ward Cammack, Indiana's John Gregg, and Utah's Peter Corroon, as well as from a newspaper column and academic research. Wehby's campaign similarly blamed a former staffer for copying from Crossroads USA, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, and 2012 House candidate Gary DeLong in her health and jobs plans. When Buzzfeed discovered Senate candidate Gordon Ball of Tennessee had plagiarized nearly his entire website from other Democratic candidates, he professed ignorance.

(One exception to the instinct to blame staff: When GOP California congressional candidate Carl DeMaio's campaign stole a National Journal cover story and database, the former San Diego councilman said, "I don't throw my staff under the bus.")

As candidates increasingly rely on staff and outside consultants to run their campaigns, they allow the possibility of overworked or lazy staffers hurting the office-seeker's image.

Plagiarism can also stem from understaffing, according to Lanhee Chen, Mitt Romney's policy director in 2012. He said gubernatorial and Senate campaigns simply don't have as robust an operation as a presidential campaign, so there can be "breakdown in the campaign approval process."

"Somebody's probably not taking a close enough look.... My sense is this has a lot less to do with the candidates, and more with the campaigns," Chen said.

That's not stopping the sloppiness from becoming a campaign issue. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie campaigned in Wisconsin on Monday, he slammed Burke for lacking "honesty and integrity." Republican Gov. Scott Walker called out his challenger on it in an ad. The Republican Governors Association, which Christie chairs, has run two ads against Burke focusing on Burke's misstep with the goal of drawing a distinction between Walker, a personable college dropout, and the Harvard-educated Burke in an otherwise deadlocked race. Embattled Democratic Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, unprompted, condemned Foley's campaign's mistake while meeting with reporters: "He gets an F for homework. He gets an F for plagiarism, and he gets an F for new ideas." State Democrats are even aiming to turn the episode into an issue of campaign election law. Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who Wehby is challenging, used the plagiarism to label his challenger as partisan: "Word for word, Monica Wehby made their agenda her agenda."

But playing professor and scolding candidates for plagiarism is hardly a winning strategy. A spokesman for Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who challenged Wolf in the Democratic primary, said at the time: "He [Wolf] says he will take us in a new direction with a 'Fresh Start' policy, yet the words aren't even his own." Wolf beat his primary opponents, including Schwartz, by 40 points. And almost three-quarters of Wisconsinites polled by Marquette University said Burke's plagiarism would have no impact on their decision, indicating either a hardened electorate or the insignificance of the incident to voters.

"What they're [voters] interested in elections is generally their own personal welfare," Sheinkopf said. "So does plagiarism impact their ability to eat? Their answer is 'no.'"

CORRECTION: The BuzzFeed story alleging plagiarism from the Burke and Wehby campaigns ran in September, not October.