A memorable interview on The David Pakman Show took place earlier this month with Alan Huffman, co-author of the book We’re With Nobody, a compelling, scary, sad, and exciting depiction of political “opposition research.” Huffman told me about the ways that he and his partner, Michael Rejebian, do research on and obtain information about political candidates. Sometimes it’s research about their client, while sometimes it’s research for their client about their opponents.
Huffman and Rejebian work mostly for Democrats, although they’ve been hired by Republicans to do primary research too, but Huffman explained that their work would be identical no matter who they’re working for. Whether they’re doing research for or on a Democrat, they have to present the skeletons they find in the closets they scour, whether it’s about their client, or their opponents.
The book tells stories in gripping detail about showing up in small towns looking for tax records or obscure court documents, to be told by a clerk or records agent that someone else was days – even hours – ahead of them standing in the same spot, asking for the same documents. While they write in We’re with Nobody that they’ve never actually bumped into their opponents’ researchers, they know they’ve been close, maybe even in the same small town restaurant having a beer just a few tables away.
I asked Huffman whether outrageous, shocking histories that he and his partner have uncovered have ever not made it into the news –whether significant skeletons have stayed in the closet – and there have been. One story involved allegations of child sexual molestation against a candidate, and another about court documents indicating a candidate had thrown a pipe bomb during his high school years.
With regard to the 2012 election and the current Republican primary race, I offered Huffman the opportunity to present some yet-unknown details about Rick Santorum’s past, but unfortunately Santorum is not one of the individuals he and Rejebian have researched. He did mention that since there’s no question the opposition research on Santorum has been done by both fellow Republican challengers, and by those on the Democratic side, the real question is whether what the state of that research is. Is Santorum really is clean, are operatives holding on to damaging information for the future, or have records been occulted, hidden, or destroyed? Time will tell.
The interview was entertaining and fascinating, both to participate in and to watch later, but in thinking back to opposition research, it raises real questions about our political system. Huffman eloquently explained that he and Rejebian’s view is that we should assume no candidate is fit to lead, unless it can be proven otherwise, rather than the other way around. I agree with this, and understand Huffman’s explanation that just about every document they turn up is a public document to which they legally have access. At the same time, there’s a negative feeling that’s hard for me to qualify regarding opposition research that gives me a “race to the bottom” sense of our vetting system. How minor a past transgression will enter the dialogue about political candidates as opposition research becomes more and more nuanced and detailed?
This isn’t a black or white issue, but really an issue of unending shades of gray. Past allegations of sexual molestation would garner consensus as an important issue from most – although some would still argue, more likely if it was their guy, that allegations or charges with an acquittal or dismissal should be the same as no allegations at all. On the other hand, juvenile charges for lighting illegal fireworks at age 14 would be broadly thought of as irrelevant. But what about reckless drunk driving at age 20? What about a 3 year period after college during which taxes were evaded, or a candidate who didn’t vote for 8 years during his 20’s with no real explanation why?
If opposition research didn’t exist, it stands to reason that a candidate with a good field team and well-produced commercials could avoid scrutiny of significant past transgressions that would appropriately affect voters’ assessments of their fitness to lead. However, with a limited amount of discussion about and consideration of any particular election, every minute spent on a candidate’s past is a minute not spent on discussing the future, although without question, how one has led their life up to the point of the election is a real indicator of how they would be if elected.
What’s your thought on opposition research? Is there a fine line for you, or is it shades of gray, particularly tainted by political orientation and double standards? Send me your thoughts.
David Pakman, host of the internationally syndicated political talk radio and television program, "The David Pakman Show," writes a monthly column. He can be reached at www.davidpakman.com.