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Two longtime Democratic opposition researchers shed light on the dark art of the political takedown
We’re with Nobody:
Two Insiders Reveal
the Dark Side of American Politics
By Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian
Harper Collins; 208pp; $15.99
This much is obvious: Figures such as Gennifer Flowers, Willie Horton, Sharon Bialek, and all manner (and gender) of congressional pages do not make their way onto the national stage fueled by a sense of justice or a love of democracy. They are ferreted out and forced into our political conversation by those who want to influence the electorate. For all our complaints about smear tactics, studies—like John G. Geer’s landmark analysis In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns—show that negative ads are more likely than positive ones to focus on important political issues and to provide voters with relevant information.
The uncovering of nefarious details from candidates’ histories, known as opposition research, has become a fixture of the seemingly endless campaign season. Opposition researchers now work at all levels of politics—from the race for a seat on a small-town planning board to the Presidential campaign—seeking to inflict the kind of damage that requires controlling.
Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian have spent the better part of the last two decades working as “oppo men” for Democratic (or rather against Republican) candidates in local, state, and national campaigns. In We’re with Nobody: Two Insiders Reveal the Dark Side of American Politics, they take turns providing anecdotes that offer up wisdom gathered from their years in the field. Although their methods differ, they are united in the conviction that they are objective seekers of facts. “In this, the golden age of lies,” Huffman writes, “we are on the side of truth.”
Huffman and Rejebian’s high-minded mission frequently relies on inglorious means. They tell stories of being stuffed in the back of an unmarked cop car and ferried to a dockside meeting with some intimidating New Jersey waterfront “executives”; having to watch a candidate demonstrate his solo dance technique in his custom home ballroom studio; and sitting on a porch in the Carolinas with a “deep background source” who cradles a shotgun in his lap out of fear of reprisal from the candidate whose alleged arsonist dabblings he’s revealing. (In what is certain to frustrate political rubberneckers, Huffman and Rejebian attempt to hover above the prurient melee by refusing to name the candidates they worked for or against.)
While such covert antics seem to occupy the duo’s prowling nights, their days are spent mainly under glaring fluorescent lights, searching through piles of public records for irregularities that are the meat of political takedowns: unscrupulous financial exchanges, wonky land deals, undisclosed tax returns or lawsuits, as well as details of divorces or marriages—open or otherwise. What these oppo men seek isn’t necessarily the most scandalous revelation. Rather, oppo gold is something that smacks of hypocrisy: a law-and-order candidate who granted a reprieve to a violent offender; an anti-choice contender whose wife had an abortion; an anti-immigration campaigner who hired illegals to landscape her yard. Huffman and Rejebian say the definition of scandal morphs with the culture, and that contemporary American voters will forgive almost any sexual or marital transgression. (Domestic abuse is a notable exception. “Slapping a woman around is a political killer,” Rejebian writes.) What they won’t forgive is a candidate who doesn’t hold himself to the pious values he claims to stand for.
Aside from the money and the intellectual rewards of exploring the human condition, the authors insist that their core interest is to reinforce American democracy. Although their righteousness may itself seem hypocritical, Huffman and Rejebian, by remaining unspecific, distance themselves from the effects of their actions. Readers looking to wallow in the muck of tell-all grotesquerie or to witness the kind of salacious drubbings that have become the standard outcome of even the most benign reality programming will not find satisfaction. Neither will they find the sort of credit-grabbing braggadocio exhibited in recent memoirs of Republican oppo men, such as How to Rig an Election by Allen Raymond or Confessions of a Political Hitman by Stephen Marks. It’s questionable whether a strident disinterest in how one’s findings are used lessens one’s implication in the political smear game. Huffman and Rejebian mean to have it both ways.
When oppo men are hired to unearth information on an opponent, they are often asked to create a parallel report on the candidate who hires them. This “self-research” is intended to identify weaknesses likely to be discovered by the other team, allowing the home campaign to craft spin in advance. Perhaps similar self-research led the authors to diligently omit any mention of their employers and to absolve themselves of their shady handiwork. Whatever the case, a clean memoir of a filthy business is a welcome perspective shift: It illuminates without slaking our blood thirst. The argument that their research into the sex lives or undisclosed dealings of politicians—and the unscrupulous Swiftboating that can result from it—is beneficial to democracy is debatable. The authors contribute something more valuable by exposing the mechanics behind their profession. Voters who read this compelling book may be less likely to vote under the influence of the kind of dirt Huffman and Rejebian spent their careers digging up.