Monthly Archives: December 2007

The Dirt: Opposition Research

When they do surveys on the most reviled professions, lawyers, HMO managers, advertisers, members of Congress, used car salesmen and Barry Bonds’ nutritionist top the list. It’s always been my opinion, though, that the only reason opposition researchers aren’t on that list is that few people know we exist.

That’s what I do for a living.

Opposition research is the habeas corpus of American politics — Show me the paper! — and it is held to a standard of 100% accuracy. We don’t get the glory, the big paycheck, or the hot intern. What we do get is the chance to do the spy-craft of political warfare. That’s why almost everything you read about opposition research will include the following quote from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “So it is said that if you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a thousand battles.”

Opposition research is the collection and analysis of legally obtained public records used to help voters make informed choices. You’ve probably heard about it as muckraking, character assassination, or, most likely, dirt digging. We spend our days in deep focus in front of computer monitors, in courthouse archives, in legislative libraries and in newspaper morgues ruining our eyesight for the sake of stockpiling the arsenals of campaigns.

We write up reports that can exceed 1,000 pages, and we back up every assertion of fact with a public document. Then a pollster takes the most salient hits and runs them through an opinion poll to see how the research moves voters, and from there the communications end of a campaign takes over by getting the research before voters via direct mail, robocalls, radio, internet and television.

Ideally, other facets of the campaign use the research as well. The fundraiser uses the research to tailor pitches to certain groups of donors, e.g., a record of voting for tort reform to get trial lawyers to open their wallets. The political department does the same for endorsements from labor, choice, and teachers’ groups. The press secretary uses the research to keep the opposition chasing its tail and to deflect negative stories. A good research book can make nearly every facet of a campaign smarter and more effective.

Observers mislay the blame for negativity in politics if they’re blaming my brethren. Blaming opposition research for campaign attacks is like blaming a shovel for dirt, but that’s exactly what people do. And by “people,” I mean not only the innocent bystanders we make watch TV ads in between segments of “Gray’s Anatomy” but also politicians who bemoan the mere existence of researchers.

“They’ve got some little minion, sitting with dark glasses, digging up dirt on people,” the first Pres. George Bush said once, when asked what his son was going to be up against in the 2000 campaign. “I don’t worry about that opposition research crowd, some little nerd sitting there at the Democratic National Committee. Doesn’t make any difference.”

I just can’t let that statement go by without making a couple observations. This is George Bush, the former head of the CIA, sneering at opposition researchers. And I think I speak for everyone in my profession when I say that, to my knowledge, we never knowingly imported crack into African-American neighborhoods or funded revolutionaries. Also, we don’t wear dark glasses at work. Just saying.

The alternatives to opposition research are an engaged and aggressive newspaper industry (hoo boy, that’s a good one) or worse, taking a politician’s word on everything. With politicians, memories and human natures being what they are, Americans cannot trust someone to reveal salient details about their public lives or even admit it when these details come to light. This isn’t a knock on politicians so much as a truth about humans. Expecting politicians to adore the very thought of opposition researchers is like expecting an oilman to lobby for more funding for the EPA.

If politicians have no incentive to like opposition research in the general, at least they have respect for it in the specific. In other words, they like us to dig up dirt on their opponents and tolerate us doing it on themselves.

That reminds me of one of my favorite clients, Georgia’s Ken Poston, a man who became a hero to me and then a friend. He asked me when I first met him what the worst thing I found out about a client was. “An Indonesian love child,” I told him.

“That can hurt you?” he asked. I looked close to make sure he was joking, and then I was sure we’d be friends.

I’ve been in business as an opposition researcher for more than a dozen years and what people want to talk about when the subject of opposition research comes up is not the process or the professional reputations, but the dirt, man, The Dirt!

Like the congressman (who was re-elected) who found himself in business with an Iraqi terrorist after his business partner improperly imported too much fertilizer. Like the businessman (who lost) who was part of an organization linked to terrorists in Pakistan.

Like the Texas state representative (who narrowly won re-election, only to retire mid-term) who once headed up a political front group for the Moonies. Like another Texas state representative (who retired after the filing deadline but before the primary) who owed $1 million in state taxes. Like the nursing home CEO (who dropped his gubernatorial campaign the weekend before the primary but after he spent $8 million) who was hit with the largest civil fine in military history for cheating veterans out of decent care in his nursing homes.

Like the pro-life Republican congressional challenger (who lost) who said a decade before that government had no place in the decision about whether to have an abortion. Like the anti-state income tax Republican congressional challenger (who lost) who said a decade and a half ago that “The fairest form of tax is, of course, an income tax.”

Like the congressional candidate (who lost) whose second ex-wife filed a restraining order against him after their separation, saying, “he has threatened to kill me.” Like the prosecutor who got married and then got his new wife a make-work job in state government. Then she divorced him, so he got her fired. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Louisiana’s new Attorney General!

The only people who would benefit from the purging of opposition research from the body politic would be the cheats, charlatans, murderers, hypocrites, and skeezy individuals who keep running for office. Without opposition research, we’d have to take a politician’s word on everything, and no one wants that.