Mitch McConnell’s whodunit mystery: Leak or bug?

    There’s nothing like a seamy little mystery to spice up the day’s discourse and divert us, however temporarily, from weightier issues like guns and budgets.

    So let us indulge. Did somebody bug Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky campaign headquarters and leak an audio recording to the left-leaning Mother Jones magazine – and, if so, why? Or did a McConnell insider secretly record the campaign team in the midst of its confidential plottings and leak the audio to the magazine – and, if so, why?

    This would be great stuff for Netflix, for its second season of House of Cards: Back on Feb. 2, when actress Ashley Judd seemed to be readying a senatorial bid to unseat McConnell in 2014, he and his aides met privately to map strategy. They spent much of their time laughing at Judd’s political baggage – notably, her iconoclastic remarks about marriage, parenting, and religion – and the whole conversation wound up in the hands of Mother Jones reporter David Corn. That’s the same guy who exposed Mitt Romney’s disparaging private remarks about the “47 percent.” Early yesterday, Corn posted his story on the McConnell team’s strategy session, and with each passing hour, the plot thickened.

    But when I speak of plot, I’m not referring to the strategists’ plottings against Judd – who in late March opted to skip the race. I’m just highlighting the plot to leak the plottings. Because that mystery is a lot more compelling than the strategy session.

    In terms of news value, the Mother Jones story is underwhelming. A Republican incumbent’s opposition research operatives had dug up some  potential ammo about a likely opponent…so what? That’s what all oppo researchers, in both parties, are paid to do. Judd’s political baggage was very real; she’s a big supporter of President Obama, and most Kentuckians oppose Obama. Had she actually challenged McConnell, she would’ve been crushed. Truth is, McConnell’s oppo team had reason to laugh. Judd would’ve been a dream foe.

    The story suggests that the oppo teammates crossed the line of decency when they discussed Judd’s admitted history of mental depression (“the McConnell gang explored going far beyond Judd’s politics and policy preferences”), but I fail to see why that’s so shocking. Oppo researchers discuss everything; they never said that they intended to use her depression as a campaign issue. And McConnell himself attended the meeting; there’s no indication in the transcript that he uttered a word about her depression. Frankly, they wouldn’t have needed to bring it up on the trail. They had lots to work with already.

    So what we have here is a story about oppo researchers doing their job and considering or not considering what they may or may not use against an opponent who decided to skip the race 13 days before the story was posted. No, the real story today is the mystery surrounding the story – and the partisan reactions to the story.

    Who made the recording and slipped it to Mother Jones? Three possibilities: (1) Democrats or someone sympathetic to Democrats bugged the headquarters, and leaked the audio to expose McConnell’s alleged perfidy, (2) a disgruntled McConnell aide, upset about the oppo research, did the deed, or (3) a loyal McConnell aide did the deed as part of a deliberate campaign strategy to pin the blame on liberals and thus make McConnell more sympathetic to Kentucky conservatives. (In politics, as in billiards, that tactic is called a “bank shot.”)

    Framing the narrative

    Which is it? No idea. But what’s amusingly predictable is the way the usual suspects are spinning whichever scenario best serves their interests.

    For instance, McConnell naturally chose scenario #1. Without a shred of evidence, he insisted yesterday that “the left” had bugged him, in a reprise of Richard Nixon’s Watergate: “Quite a Nixonian move….Nixon and Watergate….This is what you get from the political left in America these days.” His campaign manager chimed in, “Watergate-style tactics to bug campaign headquarters are above and beyond.” (Pretty funny charge, actually. What McConnell essentially said was, “This scandal is so disgraceful, it’s like what our side did.”)

    Meanwhile, over at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the party arm entrusted with trying to unseat McConnell, director Guy Cecil seemed to be leaning toward scenario #2: “Mitch McConnell is desperate to play the victim. The DSCC doesn’t know if this tape came from a disgruntled Senate staffer who was forced to dig up dirt on their boss’ potential opponents, or another source, but its content is a clear example of how Mitch McConnell is the living, breathing embodiment of everything that is wrong with Washington.” (Cecil said that McConnell should “apologize” to all Americans who suffer from depression.)

    Yup, the substance of the story (or lack thereof) is far less important than the fight to frame the resulting narrative.

    And even though McConnell’s office was swept for bugs yesterday and nothing was found, he’s crying bug anyway – in order to raise money. His campaign is tweeting that the “liberal left is exposed form illegally wiretapping our campaign HQ,” and offering a link to the campaign’s signup page – which means they’re pushing scenario #1…or maybe it’s the intended benefit of scenario #3, given the campaign’s need to rally conservatives and deter a right-wing primary challenge. We’ll know at some point. It always comes out.

    But regarding that third scenario: Could McConnell’s team really be that Machiavellian? It’s probably too House of Cards – the kind of thing that a pendantic Kevin Spacey would explain while talking directly to the viewer – but we all know that art’s contrivances are often trumped by true-life mystery.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1



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