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2:00PM Water Cooler Special: Warren Goes Rovian by Signal Boosting and Fundraising Off a Poorly Sourced Politico Hit Piece

Summary:
I suppose the Warren campaign’s recently-released “claws out” nail polish merch was a sign of things to come: Proof of that nail polish, which apparently was made by Claws Out for the @ewarren campaign. #iacaucus pic.twitter.com/HsVO6VO4oM — Kim Norvell (@KimNorvellDMR) January 11, 2020 (Of course, I like cats because they don’t display herding behavior, and don’t react well to appeals to “unity,” so I’m not sure I understand the appeal of the merch. But I digress.) For a quite awhile, the Warren campaign’s ethos was defined by “plans“; a series of white papers — I believe over sixty — released by the campaign to general applause in the political class for wonkishness. That ethos seems to have been abandoned in the wake of Warren’s butchered rollout of her #MedicareForAll “pay for” and

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I suppose the Warren campaign’s recently-released “claws out” nail polish merch was a sign of things to come:

(Of course, I like cats because they don’t display herding behavior, and don’t react well to appeals to “unity,” so I’m not sure I understand the appeal of the merch. But I digress.)

For a quite awhile, the Warren campaign’s ethos was defined by “plans“; a series of white papers — I believe over sixty — released by the campaign to general applause in the political class for wonkishness. That ethos seems to have been abandoned in the wake of Warren’s butchered rollout of her #MedicareForAll “pay for” and “transition” plans, which neither peeled off Sanders voters, as she surely must have hoped, nor satisfied centrist Democrats. Falling between two schools, Warren flailed. She now seems to have abandoned “I’m with Bernie,” in favor of attacking Sanders directly, using Karl Rove’s classic tactic of turning an enemy’s strength into a weakness[1]. (For example, the Democrats nominated John Kerry in 2004 on the strength of his war record. Rove managed to turn that into a weakness by “swiftboating” him.) This would imply that Warren has concluded that a Sanders/Warren “unity” ticket is unlikely; she may also have concluded — as we might speculate, given that she released a bankruptcy “plan” that undoes all the work on bankruptcy Biden did as a Senator, but then didn’t go on to attack him — that a Biden/Warren ticket might be in the cards. We shall see, I suppose.

The particular Sanders strength that Warren is attacking: the volunteer operation of the Sanders campaign[2]. Here is the sequence of events: Politico released story including a script for Sanders volunteers to use, attributed (falsely) to the Sanders campaign, putatively attacking Warren. This story instantly propagated through the press, the Warren campaign signal boosted it and complained of being “trashed,” and then instantly fundraised off it. We see this sort of media flap often; the next step in the ritual sacrifice would be for the press to hound Sanders for an apology or clarification, and the step after that is for the press to hold him to the newly established baseline for what he must continuously abase himself for. (Matt Taibbi discusses this behavior in Hate, Inc., but doesn’t give a name to the process. Oddly, this flap has not yet reached the apology stage.) The only problem arises when you actually read the original Politico story: Politico’s sourcing is dubious; the problematic script was not authorized by the campaign; and the script has not been shown to be fielded, which makes Warren’s initial complaint a lie (“Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me”). Further, her fundraising letter appeared with suspicious rapidity. So, first I’ll look at the original Politico article; then, I’ll look at its propagation and how the Warren campaign leveraged it; and finally I’ll look at the possible effects on the Sanders campaign.

Here is the original Politico story, by Alex Thompson and Holly Otterbein (Warren campaign embed): “Bernie campaign slams Warren as candidate of the elite.” (Note that’s the sexed-up headline the editors wrote; the reporters original headline is in the URL: “bernie-quietly-goes-negative-on-warren.” No clicks in “quietly”!).

Sanders’ campaign has begun stealthily attacking Warren as a candidate of the upper crust who could not expand the Democratic base in a general election, according to talking points his campaign is using to sway voters and obtained by POLITICO. The script instructs Sanders volunteers to tell voters leaning toward the Massachusetts senator that the “people who support her are highly-educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what” and that “she’s bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.” “I like Elizabeth Warren. [optional]” the script begins. “In fact, she’s my second choice. But here’s my concern about her.” It then pivots to the criticisms of Warren. The Sanders campaign did not challenge the authenticity of the script, but it declined to comment. The Warren campaign also declined to comment. It is unclear whether the script is being used for phone calls or door knocking or both, or in which locations.

(“The Sanders campaign did not challenge the authenticity of the script, but it declined to comment” and “the Sanders campaign declined to comment” have exactly the same content, logically. That “but” is doing a lot of work.

Now, there are a few problems with Politico’s story:

  1. Politico does not give the provenance of the script
  2. Politico does not show that the Sanders campaign authorized the script
  3. Politico does not show that the script was fielded

One would think that RussiaGate would have taught us that single-sourced, anonymous sources should be approached with a hermeneutic of suspicion, but apparently not. Let’s take each of these issues in turn.

Politico does not give the provenance of the script. Here is the best explanation I have seen, which in the absence of further reporting, if that is the word I want, from Politico, I’ll regard as true[. (I give it credence because the author is a member of the Kings County Democratic Committee.)

And:

Politico does not show that the Sanders campaign authorized the script. The Politico story is utterly devoid of context. There is no institutional setting and there is no documentary matrix. The script appears, magically, and is said to be used, magically. That’s not plausible:

Politico does not show that the script was fielded. Here is the only example of the script “out in the wild” that I can find:

(The Twitterer left off the “s” tag.) In fact, it’s extremely dubious that the script would ever be fielded, since it would involve a total redirection of the Sanders volunteer operation three weeks before Iowa, akin to asking an giant container ship to turn on a dime. For the script to be fielded, the Sanders campaign would have to change all the material available to the public:

The Sanders campaign would have have to change all its training materials:

The Sanders campaign would also have to change the agreement they’ve made every volunteer sign. See point 3:

The universal reaction I saw, from many, many Sanders volunteers, was “they tell us never, ever to go negative or attack another candidate.” Given the above, that’s certainly reasonable. (Of course, “they would say that,” but I didn’t see any signs of coordinated, inauthentic behavior, like similar wording, or tweets from old accounts with low follower numbers handles ending in lots of digits.)

Now, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask a news-gathering organization — if indeed that is what Politico is — to ask and answer such basic questions: What is the provenance of the script? Did the campaign authorize the script? Was the script ever deployed in the field. But they did not, and other news-gathering organizations — if indeed that is what they are — simply repeating Politico’s story in different words. (CBS; New York Times; New York Magazine; The Week.) The coverage, such as it was, was a complete debacle, and from flagship organizations, too.

So, given the initial Politico story, what did the Warren campaign do? (What they did not do: Call Warren’s good friend, Bernie Sanders, and ask him to rein in a rogue volunteer.) First, the Warren campaign sent their candiate out to be, well, economical with the truth[2]. From the New York Times:

“I was disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me,” Ms. Warren, of Massachusetts, said. “I hope Bernie reconsiders and turns his campaign in a different direction.”

Again, the script was posted to the campaign site by some rando and deleted, there is no evidence that the Sanders campaign approved it, and there’s no evidence that the script was deployed in the field (and it’s highly unlikely that it could have been). It’s sad that Warren chose not to apply the same critical thinking skills as a Presidential candidate that she would insist upon when grading papers from first-year Harvard students, but that’s where we are.

Next, the Warren campaign doubled down with a fundraising letter based on the putative script:

It is perhaps at this point needless to say that the Warren campaign is as economical with the truth as Warren herself; there is no evidence that the Sanders campaign “is instructing” volunteers using the script. The timing of the mailer is also curious, since it appeared in a less than a news cycle:

One might almost imagine that the Warren campaign had advance notice that the Politico story was going to run.

* * *

Concluding, I said I’d look at the implications for the Sanders campaign. I’ve consistently urged that the Sanders campaign has a unique tripartite structure that makes it independent of the Democrat apparatus; (1) the Sanders campaign has its own list, (2) its own canvassing operation, and (3) its own media operation (lots and lots and lots of videos, lots and lots and lots of tweets). Those are, in other words, the three strengths of the Sanders campaign that a Karl Rove would attack (besides the candidate himself, and the donor operation that flows from the candidate’s ideology and list ownership). Warren (and Politico) are attacking strength #2: The canvassing operation. If they can poison the well of the Sanders door-knocking, texting, and BERN app operations — with which other campaigns are not able to compete — then they will do significant damage to the Sanders campaign. (A little scorched earth, perhaps; a little anti-democratic; but politics ain’t beanbag.) What the Sanders campaign has going for it is the volunteer troops themselves, whose physical presence and commitment may end up outweighing whatever poison is emitted by the Warren campaign and Politico; and their third strength, their independent media operation. The flap and the moral panic we are seeing now is internal to the political class (the press, the campaigns, and probably their silent partners in the intelligence community). But that political class lives in a bubble, and it may be that the Sanders media operation has already inoculated the voters, outside that bubble, against whatever messaging they can construct. We shall see!

NOTE

[1] For those who came in late, Karl Rove, known as Bush’s brain, was a famously vile and effective Republican political operative. With his help, Bush won two terms, so pragmatically he’s not a bad model to follow. From Prospect Magazine, quoting an interview with Rove by Chris Wallace of FOX:

WALLACE: You’re famous in campaigns for turning your opponent’s strengths into weaknesses. How do you do that?

ROVE: You look at what they claim to be strong on and see if they really are strong on it. And many times, what people tend to offer up as their strength turns out to be actually a weakness when you examine it further. For example, the claim by Senator Kerry in 2004 that simply because he’d served in military service, which is laudable and patriotic and worthy of personal recommendation, somehow made him capable of being a strong war leader, when his views and values and approach would have been wrong in a time of…

WALLACE: But some would say go after their weaknesses. Why is it so effective to go after strengths?

ROVE: Because again, sometimes people’s strengths turn out to be really big weaknesses. We tend to — you know, people tend to sometimes in campaigns accentuate things that they think are big and important, and they exaggerate them. And more than anything else, people want authenticity and reality. People are pretty smart. They look at somebody running for office and they don’t see them as all good and all bad. They see them as, you know, human beings trying to do their best.So if you exaggerate your strong points, it generally gives an opening for people to say, “Well, you know what? Maybe that person really isn’t somebody that deserves….

[2] A oddly simultaneous second front was opened today: see here.

UPDATE From the only adult writers on the block apparently, Teen Vogue, we get more from the Politico reporter on provenance


Needless to say, it’s a very, very long leap from “Paid for by Bernie 2020” to “has begun stealthily attacking Warren.” Who signed the invoice? As a former hot-shot consultant, I’ve billed for plenty of work that never saw the light of day. And it’s not enough to say the campaign didn’t deny it. For one thing, the campaign isn’t obligated to do a reporter’s legwork for them; for another, a campaign has a lot of people working for it, and if I worked for the campaign, I’d certainly want to run the story down before saying anything.

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