Is it ever okay to bug an opponent’s political headquarters? Even those who are too young to remember what happened when officials connected with Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign unleashed an incompetent band of dirty tricksters on the offices of the Democratic National Committee in Washington’s Watergate complex, one would think the answer to that question is an emphatic no. While the Watergate scandal may have been more about the cover up than the crime, the line crossed by Nixon’s henchmen has always appeared to be a bright line that no one—not even liberals who can generally count on favorable media treatment—dare cross in this country. Yet someone or some group may have done so in Kentucky, and if that explanation of what happened at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Louisville office holds up what follows will be an interesting test of the media’s integrity.
The provenance of the tape of a discussion during a meeting between the senator and his campaign aides at his office is currently unknown. Since this was not a fundraiser held at someone’s home where guests or waiters could have taped the remarks—as was the case when President Obama was taped talking about Americans clinging to their bibles and guns or when Mitt Romney dropped his “47 percent” bomb on his own campaign—there are only two possible explanations for the tape. One is that one of the senator’s high-level aides made the tape and sent it to Mother Jones magazine. The other is that one of the senator’s political opponents was running their own version of Watergate and found a way to bug his private conversations. While one cannot exclude the possibility that the former is the case, it seems unlikely. If the latter is true, then we’re going to find out whether liberals can get away with the sort of thing for which they once took down Tricky Dick.
Liberal talking heads are trying to pooh-pooh Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s complaint that the left has engaged in dirty tricks against him and are instead trying to divert public attention to whether it was appropriate for a politician and his advisors to discuss in private whether a potential opponent’s record could be against her. The opponent was, of course, actress Ashley Judd, who at the time of the conversation was actively considering challenging McConnell.
According to this view of the incident, we are supposed to be shocked and outraged that a senior legislator would sit and listen as his aides happily contemplated doing opposition research against a rival. To say that McConnell’s people were confident they could take down Judd is an understatement. The phrase that one person in the conversation uses to describe how easy it would be to find foolish statements by Judd—“a haystack of needles”—will, no doubt, enter the country’s political lexicon regardless of the source of the tape. However, liberals seem to be saying that the only decent thing for McConnell to do was to leave the room or perhaps even fire those chuckling about Judd’s personal foibles.
This is, of course, hypocrisy on an Olympian scale. After a year in which Barack Obama’s campaign spent much of its time trying to falsely portray Mitt Romney as a heartless murderer and tax cheat, Democrats are in no position to cry foul about Republicans discussing the possibility of working over Judd.
But the real question here is not liberal hypocrisy about McConnell. The issue is the practice of taping private political conferences between a candidate and his staff. Unless one of McConnell’s aides went rogue and gave up his boss to, of all publications, the far-left San Francisco-based Mother Jones, what happened in Louisville was a criminal act of the sort that American politicians were supposed to understand had been conclusively placed beyond the pale by Nixon.
McConnell has earned the resentment of liberals both for his skillful leadership of Senate Republicans and by being an unabashed advocate of conservative principles. But since when does that give opponents the right to tape his private conversations? Had a similar incident happened to Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi or any prominent Democrat, the mainstream liberal media would be leading with this topic in every broadcast and front page with each story drenched in Watergate analogies instead of the focus on a candidate “plotting” against a rival, as has been the case with accounts of McConnell’s tape.
No matter what turns out to be the true story behind this tape—if indeed we ever do find out the truth—liberals and conservatives should both be condemning the taping of private political conferences in this manner. A consensus that these sorts of tactics could never again be tolerated followed Watergate. But if McConnell’s enemies can get away with it, no party and no individual will be safe from political espionage.