The day after Earth Day 2004, the Republican National Committee rolled out SUV-gate.
“DON’T BLAME ME FOR SUV,” blared the headline on an April 23 “Research Briefing” available on the RNC website and emailed to supporters and reporters alike. In the briefing, John Kerry was quoted saying one day earlier that he didn’t own a sport utility vehicle and then, under reporters’ questioning, conceding that his wife owned a Suburban, adding, ‘The family has it, I don’t have it.’” The quotation was diligently attributed to an April 22 Associated Press story.
“Just two months ago,” the RNC briefing continued, “Kerry said he owned ‘some SUVs’” at an appearance in Detroit. A February 5 Detroit News article was cited as back up. Moreover, two years prior, Kerry stated that both his stepson and his daughter drive SUVs, something the RNC proudly attributed to p. S1758 of the Congressional Record, March 12, 2002.
Does anyone care? Apparently, yes.
Some ten days after Earth Day, in the May 10 issue of Time magazine, this headline appeared: “What Kerry Means to Say …” Kerry, readers were told, “gives plenty of ammunition to those who say he considers no hair too fine to split and who charge that he tailors the cut of what he says to meet the tastes of the audience and the moment.” The “ammunition” Time cited included the same AP and Detroit News quotes provided in the RNC-SUV research briefing. Next, these same quotes popped up in newspapers from the Washington Post to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. RNC chairman Ed Gillespie and President Bush each got additional mileage out of SUV-gate in various speeches — sounding an only John Kerry could take both sides on whether he owns an SUV theme. Those speeches, in turn, generated yet more media coverage.
Perry Bacon, Jr., who contributed reporting to the Time story, told Campaign Desk that he found the SUV information for the article on the RNC web site. “Using their research I was able to ask the [Kerry] campaign, ‘I read that you owned these cars,’ and I was able to get a response,” said Bacon. “That was helpful.” He added that the RNC’s research sped up his reporting process, “made it very easy to check the clips and then use it.”
For Republicans, it was Mission Accomplished: one small piece of opposition research, magnified and amplified as it bounced around the media echo chamber; one step forward in the wider effort to paint Kerry as the consummate flip flopper. As Joshua Green recently wrote in the Atlantic, campaigns use opposition research “in the service of a larger goal … to craft over the course of the campaign a negative ‘storyline’” about a candidate that in time takes root in the minds of the voting public. Journalists —eager for a scoop, on deadline, some with daily news holes to fill — are the conduit for the “storyline.” Indeed, as several political reporters told Campaign Desk, they rely on opposition research as a resource and see nothing wrong, or sinister, in the practice.
SUV-gate is just one small example of how opposition research flows. In this case (as in most, opposition research purveyors and recipients alike stress) the research consisted of information in the public domain, or “votes and quotes,” as it’s called in the trade. In an online chat in 2003 the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz described the difference between opposition research and garden-variety talking points this way: “A talking point would be to say that Joseph Lieberman has changed his position on affirmative action. An oppo-gram contains the exact quotes in which Lieberman questioned affirmative action, followed by his supporting affirmative action and insisting he’s never changed his position. That has a bigger impact on the [Tim] Russerts of the world than just partisan rhetoric.”