Opposition research has become as crucial a part of campaigning as a well built ground game or a robust donor file. It’s ugly, it’s cynical, and no one really likes to admit that they do it, but they do, because it works. At least, it works when there is actually some facts to back up the negative narrative that you’re trying to build.
It’s become clear that Democrats are grasping at straws to find much of substance to go over this year’s crop of Republican candidates. Over the past two weeks Democrats have combed through their “oppo files” and leaked what they considered to be their juiciest tidbits to disrupt the campaigns of Marco Rubio and Ben Carson, two of the candidates who pose the most serious threat to the coronation of Hillary Clinton. But each of the “stories” have fallen flat, suggesting that Democrats might actually have to [gasp] go toe-to-toe on the issues rather than rely on character attacks.
Perhaps the most egregious attack was leveled against Dr. Carson, who has long told the story of being a top ROTC student in Detroit, meeting with General William Westmoreland during a Memorial Day parade, and later getting “offered a full scholarship to West Point” by military officers.
POLITICO attempted to undermine Carson’s version of events in a twisty story of carefully crafted wordsmithing. Here’s the opening paragraph to the hit piece:
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson on Friday conceded that he never applied nor was granted admission to West Point and attempted to recast his previous claims of a full scholarship to the military academy — despite numerous public and written statements to the contrary over the last few decades.
But Carson never claimed to have applied to West Point. Instead, he simply said that officers told him that he would be accepted and receive a scholarship. The POLITICO story doesn’t dispute the first part of that narrative because there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that Carson isn’t telling the truth. After all, it doesn’t exactly stretch credulity to believe that Carson, who was a top ROTC student, would have been encouraged to attend West Point. And although it technically can’t be true that Carson was offered a “scholarship,” because the school does not offer them, it is true that everyone who is accepted attends for free.
At worst Carson is guilty of imprecision in his retelling of events, but is that really a surprise given he was a teen when the event happened and almost 40 when his book, which initially contained the story, was published? No. Indeed, it’s a much less egregious error than POLITICO’s initial headline, which read: “Exclusive: Ben Carson admits fabricating West Point scholarship.” After getting their hand slapped for the blatantly false headline they changed it to read, “Carson claimed West Point ‘scholarship’ but never applied.” It’s still wildly misleading, but, as the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel tweeted, “[T]aking ‘fabrication’ out of that headline is like taking uranium out of an A-bomb.”
The second candidate to fall prey to Democrats’ faulty oppo file was rising star Marco Rubio. The New York Times, which has attempted several times to make this into a story worth caring about, reported on Wednesday:
“A decade after he began using a Republican Party credit card for personal purchases like paving stones at his home, Senator Marco Rubio on Wednesday pledged to disclose new spending records from that account as he sought to inoculate himself against what could be his biggest liability as a presidential candidate: how he manages his finances.”
Again, Rubio never claimed that he didn’t make personal charges on his state GOP-issued card. But that’s not really a scandal. After all, it didn’t violate party practice at the time and there is absolutely no suggestion that Rubio ever failed to reimburse either the party or the charge card company for his personal expenses. As the Times itself reports,
Every time, he said, he identified the personal purchases and ultimately paid for them himself. He wrote a monthly check to the credit card company to cover the personal costs, and the party wrote a check to cover the political ones, according to his staff.
Rubio has variously admitted that “[i]t was a mistake” and that he “wish[ed] that none of them had ever been charged,” but that’s a long way from any sort of formal wrongdoing, of which the Florida Commission on Ethics cleared him and dismissed the complaint against him. If there’s a story here, it’s not based on any of the information that’s presently available. As the Washington Post Fact Checker wrote, “[B]ased on the information released so far, a mountain’s been made out of a molehill, by the media and Rubio’s opponents.”
That’s not surprising, but it is telling. Democrats simply don’t have any dirt on the Republican field and they’re freaking out about it.