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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

SSDC Copiergate: Suckers!

Updated below.

So what effect did the Wisconsin blogs have on the election just passed? No one has formally asked me that question yet, but in a pique of blogotistical ego, I've had my answer prepared for some time, anyway, just on the off chance that someone would ask. That answer?

None.

And to defend that answer, I think of a couple of emblematic moments from the campaign season. Among the biggest and ugliest of the moments in mind is the State Senate Democratic Committee memo. To refresh your memory (note the last bit):
State Senate Republicans put their hands on the campaign plans of Democrats in June--strategic help they say they lucked into after a legislative aide found the political documents in a Capitol copier five months before the Nov. 7 election.

Keith Gilkes, executive director of the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, said Wednesday that an aide to a Republican senator found copies of the political plans in the copier early this summer after duplicates had been made. Republicans plan to ask the state Elections Board today to review whether the documents showed an illegal coordination between the State Senate Democratic Committee and groups friendly to its cause, Gilkes said. [. . .] Gilkes provided copies of the documents to the Journal Sentinel but declined to name the aide who found them or the aide's boss. [. . .]

The documents themselves became a campaign issue after they were posted Wednesday on www.bootsandsabers.com and other political Web logs.
For me, this was always a shining example of how the blogs failed, utterly and spectacularly, to live up to their billing. Or their potential. Or anything, really.

Dig it: The Republicans found, back in June, the Democrats' Senate campaign plan. Mid-Octoberish, the Republicans were looking at the kind of numbers that make you call a hail mary, and they leaked the plan in the way that they could create the most noise--they gave it to the bloggers.

Owen at Boots and Sabers wasn't the only recipient. Owen tends to be relatively reasonable--the Republicans needed a respectable face on this--and his first post about the plan, indeed, is tame (breathless updates aside) compared to some others. Owen sees the potential illegality in the duplication of the documents on a state copier, and that's about it. But here's one ballistic leakee, shrieking at the top of his lungs. Another overreaction lies here, with very strong assertions of law-breaking and agitation for action. When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the story, they linked only to Owen, which probably disappointed the Republicans who tried to leak strategically to the most easily excitable in the bunch.

And in the end, of course, not only were there no legal implications related to any possible coordination between the SSDC and third-party groups, the Republicans lost the Senate to Democrats--whose plan they had!--in pretty dramatic fashion. Total help from the blogs? None.

But the story got worse yesterday. You wouldn't think that it could, since it already comes complete with an anticlimactic fizzle despite the screaming nonsense from some of the least sensical of the Republicans' blogging allies. We now have the real story:
A Republican legislative aide looked through a Democrat's binder and made copies of campaign plans inside it five months before the election, a disclosure that shed new light Monday on how the GOP obtained the valuable political documents.

In the weeks before the Nov. 7 election, Keith Gilkes, executive director of the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, said the aide had found the documents after they had been copied on a Capitol copier. But in a statement released Monday, Capitol aide John O'Brien said he found the originals in June and copied them over concerns they disclosed illegal campaign. [. . .]

Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona) said he brought the plans into the Capitol after he mistakenly grabbed a binder that looked like his from Matt Swentkofske, director of the state Senate Democratic Committee. Miller said he left the binder in the copy room next to his office. He often leaves his coat and bag in the room, which doubles as a lunch area.
Dave Diamond has already addressed the disingenuousness of O'Brien's actions. But what struck me while reading of O'Brien's confession, reading about the cover-up of the document's true origins, and thinking back on the way this story played out on the blogs, was simply this:

The bloggers got played. Like an out-of-tune accordion.

One, the leakee bloggers were outright lied to. Owen's first post, for example, notes that he was told that "apparently, some Dem left the Wisconsin State Senate Dem campaign plan on a copier." The people who told Owen that lied to him. I don't know if Owen's source was Gilkes, or just someone on his staff, but what got passed on to Owen and the shriekier bloggers was known to be false when it was passed on. No doubt, Gilkes also lied to the media; but what does it say that the Republicans here didn't think to treat their blogging allies any better than they did the schlumps in the MSM?

Two, the Republicans knew what they wanted to get from the bloggers--hysteria--and they got it, right on cue. Consider, the Republicans had the SSDC memo in June! If they held any doubts about the legality of what was in that document--or of its appearance in a Capitol copy room--they could have gone public or to the State Elections Board right then. But they didn't; they held onto the stuff for four whole months. And even then, rather than go to the necessary authorities, they went to the bloggers. Why? Because the authorities would say, as indeed they later did, that no illegal coordination happened, and then Republicans wouldn't even have enough material for a solid press release. Instead, they released the documents to the bloggers, who did jump up and down and yell and scream that illegal activity was taking place. And, with just that little bit of smoke and mirrors, the story had become News.

Three, the Republicans clearly don't care if their putative allies in the Cheddarsphere look completely foolish. Owen--not to pick on him too much, because he's a nice guy and I feel bad for him (and only him) that he got played--actually drove out to the Capitol to look at and take pictures of the break room where the documents had been found. His conclusion? "Sorry, but I’m not buying Miller’s story." Turns out, by (the real culprit) O'Brien's own admission, Miller's story was 100% true.

Four, the Republicans have put the bloggers in the unenviable position of either having to call for the prosecution of O'Brien--for making copies of political rather than legislative documents on a Capitol copier--or look like hypocrites. All of these bloggers made it clear that they thought Miller or whichever of his aides made the copies should be going to jail. (I made the same call, even back when I thought it might be a Dem who was responsible. I'm nothing if not in favor of obeying the law.) Now that we know there were no Democrats involved, and it was a Republican aide who made the copies--not to mention a chain of Republicans who covered that up--we have to wait to see if those bloggers make the same demands for jail time. As of right now, admittedly an ungodly hour in the morning, I only hear crickets. (Update: In a well-written and poignant post, Owen (rightly) says he's upset and calls for O'Brien's prosecution.)

So there it is. Exhibit A in the case for "Wisconsin bloggers did squat in this election cycle." You got your sound and your fury, and you got nothing in return except a sour taste in your mouth.

For my part, again, I feel bad for someone like Owen in all of this. He probably doesn't need or want my sympathy, but he was duped, and you can't help but feel for the guy. In the end, I hope he was able to get a bit of a laugh: The news reports tell us that John O'Brien is spending some time away from the Capitol on "an extended medical leave." There's something deliciously ironic about someone in state government actually using their sick time--and for this!

Further update: Again, read Owen. Peter, too, is mad he was lied to, and demands legal repercussions. Also, Seth independently arrived at the same conclusion I did, and celebrates Sen. Miller's vindication in the matter.

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