Call Off Woodward and Bernstein, Because Watergate This Ain't

The leaked tape of a McConnell aide discussing Ashley Judd's mental stability isn't a scandal of epic proportions.

By SHARE
FE_130410_mcconnell.jpg
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., listens to questions at a news conference following a GOP strategy session at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 11, 2012. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is at right.

Is it some sort of Mad Men-esque nostalgia that makes us search desperately for some sort of Watergate type scandal? You wouldn't know it from the reaction of the political world, but the "scandal" arising from a surreptitiously obtained tape of a campaign discussion at the headquarters of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell doesn't make the cut.

Distasteful behavior clearly was on display on the tape, which was obtained by the magazine Mother Jones. At a presumably private meeting, staffers and (at least for a time – it's not clear how long) McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, talked about how to thwart the potential Democratic challenge of actress Ashley Judd.

Discussion was had about how many ways Judd would be vulnerable in a campaign. At one point, McConnell was heard to have said:

I assume most of you have played the, the game Whac-A-Mole? This is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign…when anybody sticks their head up, do them out.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

A staffer was heard saying there was a "wealth of material" to use against Judd, who ultimately decided not to run. And in the segment that has gotten the most attention, someone in the tape makes reference to Judd's experience with depression, saying:

She's clearly, this sounds extreme, but she is emotionally unbalanced. I mean it's been documented. Jesse can go in chapter and verse from her autobiography about, you know, she's suffered some suicidal tendencies. She was hospitalized for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the '90s.

What's happened since? McConnell's office asked for an FBI investigation into how Mother Jones obtained the tape. A McConnell campaign spokesman accused the "Left" of bugging the office. McConnell charged that someone – perhaps the same person or people who made an ethnic slur about his wife – had done the deed, which the leader described as Nixonian.

Judd's spokesperson, meanwhile, railed against the mention of her depression. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee followed, issuing a statement that said:

It is beneath the office of Minority Leader to engage in this kind of trivial politics. [McConnell] should apologize to the millions of Americans who suffer from depression and don't believe it's a laughing matter.

[ Take the U.S. News Poll: Should Ashley Judd Run for Senate?]

OK, let's back up here just a bit here. Yes, it's extremely callous and pretty offensive to make light of anyone's struggle with depression. We have made great strides in the acceptance of mental health disorders as real illnesses, and as more people (especially in Congress) experience depression or know someone who has, mental health will hopefully be given more attention.

But McConnell was not the one who made the comments. It is not necessary for him to apologize for something said by an unidentified staffer in private. And while one hopes that Judd's depression would not have been an issue in a hypothetical campaign, it would not have taken smears by a McConnell campaign staffer to bring it to light. Judd has written openly about her depression, and should be commended for doing so, as it demystifies and destigmatizes something many Americans experience.

In all likelihood, such a strategy would be rejected, anyway, since the public backlash would outweigh any political benefit. And people who get the heebie-jeebies over someone who was treated for depression don't need to be told about it from the McConnell campaign. It's already out there.

After that, where's the big scandal? It's not in David Corn writing about the tape in Mother Jones. He got the tape (from an anonymous source, he says) and understandably wrote about it. McConnell's office says they may have been bugged. Is that realistic? If Democratic campaign operatives were going to take the legal and logistical risk of trying to bug someone's office, are they really going to choose the office of McConnell, who may be suffering from low approval ratings, but has yet to draw a serious challenger?

More likely, the tape was made by someone in the room, and was ultimately (perhaps not directly) given to Corn. It might have been a disgruntled staffer. It might have been a cleaning crew member who found a tape that was made by a staffer for planning purposes. Watergate, it ain't.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

McConnell has every right to be angry about the disclosure of the tape. Campaign officials and staffers have a right to expect privacy in strategy sessions. It is not the same thing as the devastating "47 percent" remarks GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said at a fundraiser. Those comments were at an exclusive dinner, but were not entirely private. The threshold for attending the Romney fundraiser was money, not allegiance to a campaign. But McConnell's office can't blame Corn for the disclosure – that came from someone else.

A massive conspiracy has been alleged about a race that is not shaping up (yet, anyway) as terribly competitive. The transgressions here were made by a single staffer who made an insensitive remark about depression, and by the person who secretly taped the conversation or gave a private tape to a member of the press. Everyone else was doing his or her job.