Scraping the Barrel

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, July 8, 2004)


Say this for the Bush campaign – its attack dogs did their homework. They just didn’t do it terribly well.

In anticipation of John Kerry’s big announcement Tuesday, the GOP purchased the web address (plus similar ones for Gephardt and Vilsack) and was ready to launch its opposition research as soon as Kerry made the pick official. The result is a nearly 30-page document called “Who is John Edwards?” (Answer: “a disingenuous, unaccomplished liberal and friend to personal injury trial lawyers.”) The Republicans proceed to attack the North Carolina senator on everything from his having served just one term in office to his inability to name the type of truck he has.

Besides pointing out obvious disagreements over policy, the “research” includes a scattershot list of unrelated and often bizarre criticisms, many taking small portions of news reports grossly out of context. Take this example, designed to paint Edwards as a dabbling latecomer to politics:

“Neither was [Edwards] active in politics for the first 44 years of his life, except for the occasional donation to a Democratic candidate. He never ran for office or worked on a campaign. Indeed, before he burst onto the political scene in 1998, he did not even vote in several local elections, because, he says, he was too busy with his legal work.”

But the January New York Times piece where that quote appears goes on to explain how “that all changed” with the 1996 death of Edwards’ 16-year-old son Wade:

“Mr. Edwards emerged from seclusion to throw himself into politics and public life with a vengeance. Although he had toyed with running for office since the early 1990s, several family friends said, Wade’s death pushed him into the public fray. He tried only two more cases.”

The Republicans use a similar approach to Edwards’ voting record, pointing to a 1998 Charlotte Observer article that found:

“[Edwards] failed to vote in half the elections he could have over the past seven years. One of seven Democrats in the May 5 primary, Edwards voted in nine of 18 elections since 1991, according to Wake County voting records.”

The very next sentence explains these were mostly local elections, and quotes Edwards acknowledging that he usually voted in “major and primary” elections. But considering Dick Cheney’s well publicized track record of skipping elections – including the 2000 primary – this might not be a wise route for the Bush campaign to go down.

So too with the GOP charge that “Edwards’ presidential campaign has received $2,500 from oil and gas company employees.” Not only is $2,500 a drop in the proverbial bucket when it comes to campaign finance, but do Bush and Cheney of all people want to get into contributions from oil companies?

One of the strangest bits of research is a quote from Bill Clinton (whose judgment the GOP seemingly now endorses) about Edwards’ campaign:

“As Clinton said, according to a transcript on the Atlantic Web site, ‘I told him: John, you’re great on TV. You make a great talk. You can talk an owl out of a tree. But my opinion is, presidential elections are won by the strength of the candidate, and having a network of support, and then by the mega message, having the big message.’ In other words, Edwards looked and sounded good — but there wasn’t much substance behind his words and image.”

Of course, the site leaves out the fact that the article was from March 2003. So Clinton was speaking about Edwards in the embryonic stage of the campaign – before Al Gore decided whether to run, before Howard Dean was a household name and well before Edwards began using the “two Americas” stump speech that provided a textbook case of “mega message.”

But the most bizarre section of opposition research is that entitled “Edwards is Phony and Disingenuous,” which uses a random assortment of innocuous facts to imply Edwards is somehow less than authentically Southern:

“Beverly Hills, 90210, Was The Ninth Ranked Zip Code Contributor To Edwards’ Presidential Campaign, Totaling Over $68,000 In Contributions.”

“Dennis Hopper Hosted A Fundraiser For Edwards”

“Edwards Hasn’t Hunted Or Fished ‘In Years.’”

“Edwards Doesn’t Follow Weekly NASCAR Races, Adds He ‘Doesn’t Follow Anything Except Politicking.’”

Considering the GOP had ample time to look into Edwards’ past and compile a range of frivolous criticism, his selection probably bodes well for the Kerry camp. If this is the best Republicans can come up with, Edwards is already proving a formidable opponent.

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