This May Be a Pre-Mortem of the 2000 Campaign

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If George W. Bush overcomes the revelations about his drunk-driving conviction and wins on Tuesday, you can thank — or blame — "Oppo."

That's the name for the backroom boys (and gals) who, by well-aimed research, managed to change Al Gore's image from that of wooden Boy Scout into untrustworthy liar — and may have cost him the election.

Of course, every presidential election season has its new tactics and campaign strategies — the Rapid Response teams run by James Carville that helped bring President Clinton to power is the most recent example — but the latest ways in which the electorate has been persuaded don't usually become apparent until magazines do election retrospectives or books are published.

But for those who pay attention to the men behind the proverbial curtain, Britain's BBC has unveiled something of a first: a glimpse deep inside the 2000 campaigns that has been seen before the election. Last week the British TV network premiered "Digging the Dirt," a documentary that exposes the rough-and-tumble tactics of both the Bush and Gore campaigns.

The film delves into many aspects of this year's battles. We see close-ups of how Bush decimated McCain by brutal push-poll phone calls and how Gore trounced Bradley by savage attacks on his health care proposals.

But the overwhelming message of the film is the insight it brings to the Republican version of Carville's War Room — the seething research room at RNC headquarters in D.C. where GOP head of research Barbara Comstock and her deputy, Tim Griffin, ply a rough trade.

The key ingredient of the 2000 elections is undoubtedly the enormous growth in the past four years of the people who do "oppo," the nickname for the opposition research departments in each campaign.

That both sides maintain teams dedicated to unearthing material on the other is not new. What is new is the intensity of the digging, the sheer breadth and depth of the search, and, most of all, the now seamless and instant deployment of the results directly into the mass media.

In fact, the film reveals how much the media has come to depend on the "Oppo" research for material. Traditionally, newspaper journalists and TV producers have conducted independent research of charges made by a campaign. That has now dwindled, both due to news organizations being more and more stretched and because the media believes that the backfire effect on the campaigns would be far too devastating if the information provided were wrong.

In the film we see RNC glee as the Associated Press accepts their oppo research on a Gore misstatement during the first presidential debate. During their months of filming BBC producers also observed producers for NBC's Tim Russert, among others, calling to enquire if the team had any new material. This was apparently normal practice.

"It's an amazing thing," says RNC researcher Griffin in the film, "when you have top-line producers and reporters calling you and saying 'We trust you.... We need your stuff.'"

This increasing dependence on the zeal of the oppo teams has paid far richer dividends for Bush than for Gore. And for two reasons: First, the Bush/RNC team has been far more assiduous and painstaking in its work. And second, the fruits of its labors have been of considerably more value to its overall strategy.

For instance, one of the Gore/DNC campaign objectives has been to discredit Bush's Texas record, in much the same way that President Bush successfully trashed the Massachusetts Miracle that was Dukakis' intended trump card in 1988. The Gore campaign has achieved its task in pure terms — there is certainly an awareness that Texas isn't quite the Garden of Eden that Bush has been portraying. But at the same time they were also trying to convey the belief that Bush, as a one-and-half-term governor of a state where the chief executive has very little power, would therefore lack the hands-on experience necessary to run a nation. Highlighting the fact that the Texas legislature meets for only four months every two years makes the case well. But the corollary is that it has weakened the overall argument against Bush. It is difficult to make the case that the Texas governor can be held very accountable for failures if the gubernatorial power is so weak.

Meanwhile, the Bush campaign came up with a much more effective plan. It was apparent early on to the Bush team that the election could not be won on what are traditionally described as "the issues." As the polls continue to show, the majority of the issues favor Gore and the Democrats.

Instead, said the RNC tacticians, Bush had to ensure that the election be about personality and likeability. But it also had to subtly be about Bill Clinton. So the primary remaining task has been to color Gore not just as less likable than Bush. There had to be a way of linking him to Bill Clinton so that Bush could run against Clinton.

Gore has done everything he can to dodge this tactic, principally the questionable tightrope act of declaring that he is "his own man" and in the process both distancing himself from Clinton and the eight-year boom that has accompanied his presidency. This left the Bush team with one key objective. To redefine the popular image of Al Gore.

If one looks back a couple of years, the prevailing conventional wisdom about Gore was not about lies, deceits, exaggerations and embellishments. It was how wooden he was. Robo-Veep. Gore even made fun of it, often making a self-deprecating quip that he was so boring that his Secret Service code name was Al Gore. Yes, there had been the Buddhist temple incident and the White House fund-raising phone calls, but those seemed to be viewed as technical breaches of obscure laws rather than examples of outright mendacity. His overall image was of a boringly earnest Boy Scout. His Rose Garden defense of a just-impeached Clinton, an act of understandable loyalty.

That was not enough to run against. With those clothes, Gore could run as a dull Clark Kent whose biggest sin would be his lumbering and pious integrity. The Bush team had to find a way to make this uncharismatic cipher take on the hue of Clinton. Gore's chameleon-like approach to the campaign played into their hands.

As Gore stumbled from alpha male to Prozac-ed debater — like an over-the-hill teen pop star searching for a comeback image — the Bush team decided on its plan. It would take all of Gore's perceived weaknesses and find a way to define them as all being part of the same character flaw. And the kicker would be that it was the same defect that the public had detected in Clinton.

The Bush team had a willing accomplice in this. Gore, like many politicians, has a long-identified habit of decorating his speeches with self-aggrandizing filigree. But it is usually dismissed by the public as being par for the course. The Bush campaign's intuition was that if this trait could be vulcanized as being the core of Gore rather than just one of the many traits — good or bad — then they were made.

How to do this? Simple. Establish a massive database of every utterance in Gore's 26 years in public service — and then pounce on any and every discrepancy like a bulldog lawyer seeking to discredit a witness. It wouldn't matter how tiny the variance. Any deviation could be characterized as an embellishment, an exaggeration, an untruth, a dishonesty. And then finally the word that would superglue Gore to Clinton. A lie.

And so, on the night of the first debate we see a pumped-up Tim Griffin barking orders to his large team of "oppos." Jim Lehrer tosses Gore the question about him having cast doubt on whether Bush has sufficient experience to lead. Gore demurs and parses his response. Griffin leaps into loud action. Within minutes, his team have tracked down an obscure Gore quote buried within the transcript of a lengthy speech. Gotcha! "It directly contradicts what he just said in the debate! He just lied!" crows Griffin. Seconds later Griffin has fed the contradiction to the Associated Press. This is beyond post-debate spin. This is play-by-play impeachment. And incredibly effective.

Moments later the topic is the Balkans. Gore speaks of how World War I started there and says "my uncle was a victim of poison gas there." The RNC oppo staff giggles at this and Griffin bellows: "This family stuff is killing me... let's check his uncle!" There is a flurry of activity — and then palpable disappointment that Gore's uncle really was a gas victim. "OK, so that is not a lie..." Griffin grimaces, and phones the bad news to a waiting colleague: "Hey... we confirmed the uncle tear-gas story...."

But when Gore makes what turns out to be his misstatement about visiting Texas fire sites with FEMA director James Lee Witt, Griffin senses blood. "Have Jeanette take a look at that!" he cries. And his hunch is right. Gore has transposed dates or people. And that gives Griffin another opportunity.

The BBC cameras catch him on the phone exulting to a colleague: "You know what this would be perfect for is... Get one of these AP reporters or somebody on it for the next few days and then we get a lie out of it... and roll a few days with a new lie!"

And "LIE" was what they got. The New York Post trumpets "LIAR LIAR" on its front page — and the post-debate spin cycle becomes about Gore's perceived chronic character flaw. And so it has gone every week since the debates. The image is enshrined.

Did it matter that that Gore has in fact visited Texan fire sites (but with another FEMA executive)? Did it matter that he had made other visits to Texas with James Lee Witt? Were Gore's words a misstatement or a lie? What would have been the benefit in intentionally lying about such a trivial fact? Was it important either way?

To Griffin it didn't matter.

"Research is a fundamental point," he says. "We think of ourselves as the creators of the ammunition in a war. Research digs up the ammunition. We make the bullets."

The enduring legacy of the 1992 campaign was the large sign in Carville's War Room, bearing a phrase that subsequently entered the political lexicon. "It's the economy, stupid."

Behind Griffin in the RNC Oppo Room, the BBC camera captures a large sign he has erected. "On my command — unleash hell on Al."