No one has fled a campaign this quickly since Berezina.
On Sunday, Hillary Clinton was marching steadily toward the sunlit uplands of the Democratic presidential nomination, the party at her heels. Four days later, following revelations that she used a private e-mail account on a private server to avoid public scrutiny while secretary of state — in the process violating federal law and endangering state secrets — Democratic kingmakers are in retreat, reportedly searching for viable alternatives. Even the usual media defenders are curiously absent.
All, that is, but one: David Brock, Clinton fundraiser, founder of the spin machine Media Matters for America, right-wing assassin turned left-wing assassin. Hillary’s Pompadour Protector.
On Wednesday, Brock joined MSNBC’s Morning Joe, where he contended that “the whole premise” of the New York Times story “has fallen apart,” because Hillary Clinton broke no rules — this just moments after co-host Mika Brzezinski had read to him a 2009 regulation requiring that any e-mails created on federal employees’ private e-mail accounts be preserved, a rule Clinton clearly broke. Brock again denied that any violation took place. Brzezinski’s astonishment was clear: “I’m not sure what planet I’m on right now.”
That is a not uncommon reaction these days when it comes to Brock, who has long been known for alien behavior. He reportedly spent part of 2010 dodging right-wing “snipers” on rooftops with the help of an ever-present armed bodyguard and security personnel standing guard outside his posh suburban-D.C. residence; and last month he cited “an orchestrated political hit job” as the reason for his abrupt departure from the board of the pro-Hillary super PAC Priorities USA Action.
But Brock is also a wildly successful fixture of left-wing muckraking. Since 2004, Media Matters has dogged right-wing news sources, from Glenn Beck to Rush Limbaugh to Fox News, seeking to highlight conservative “misinformation.” The organization employs 45 researchers, every single one of whom was assigned in February to pore through Bill O’Reilly’s archives in an effort to advance Mother Jones’s story about the popular Fox host’s time in the Falkland Islands. That is a regular tactic for Media Matters, concentrating all its resources on a single target: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh; in 2011 Brock declared a “war on Fox.” (A glance at Media Matters’ website shows that many of those O’Reilly researchers have been reassigned to an all-hands-on-deck defense of Hillary Clinton.)
And Media Matters gets results. In his 2008 Daily Caller exposé of Media Matters, Tucker Carlson noted that Media Matters in its early years had a direct line to MSNBC president Phil Griffin. “We were pretty much writing their prime time,” a former Media Matters employee told Carlson. It was also contributing to the content of major left-wing blogs (Huffington Post, Daily Kos, Salon) and mainstream news sources (the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, etc.). Media Matters was instrumental in the firing of shock jock Don Imus in 2007, and it has had a hand in Obama-administration decisions, working with Valerie Jarrett and the Justice Department. In November 2014, former Media Matters CEO Matthew Butler was nominated for a seat on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
But Brock’s targets are not just under studio spotlights. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) is still a senator largely thanks to American Bridge PAC, a Brock operation, which caught Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” gaffe on camera, uploaded the footage to YouTube, and pumped it out to prominent national news organizations. The gaffe was filmed by one of the organization’s several dozen “trackers,” whose job is to record every public utterance (and whatever private ones they can manage) of prominent Republican candidates. The videos are being centrally databased, and are searchable by name, topic, and keyword.
It is only one part of an enormous guerrilla-style opposition-research effort on the left, which involves not just cameramen in the field but researchers knee-deep in old newspapers, microfilm, and the dustiest corners of the World Wide Web. When rumors emerged that Mitt Romney was considering Senator Rob Portman of Ohio as his 2012 vice-presidential nominee, American Bridge PAC published online a 347-page opposition-research book. In preparation for 2016, the organization in December released a preliminary report on 20 prospective GOP candidates, detailing everything from Bobby Jindal’s participating in an exorcism while an undergraduate to Chris Christie’s striking a motorcyclist with his vehicle in 2002. American Bridge PAC (and similar ventures, in several of which Brock is involved) see themselves as doing nothing less than changing the texture of American campaign politics.
None of this relies on the Clintons. But big-money, big-influence liberal politics is never distant from the Clinton “machine,” which, after a quarter-century at the forefront of American politics, wields enormous power. And David Brock got his start with the Clintons — albeit, via a tortuous route.
As a right-wing political hitman, plucked from Berkeley by John Podhoretz and the Washington Times, then employed by the Heritage Foundation and The American Spectator, Brock became the Clintons’ bane when he broke “Troopergate” in 1993. (Paula Jones’s allegations would, of course, pave the way for the Lewinsky scandal.) Three years later, Brock wrote the book on Hillary Clinton — literally: The Seduction of Hillary Rodham — but stunned the political establishment when he shortly thereafter renounced his right-wing loyalties, apologized to Bill Clinton for Troopergate (it was not, he said, “in the interest of good government or serious journalism”), and repurposed his firsthand knowledge of conservatives’ fundraising and opposition-research apparatuses to set up similar networks on the left. Although never on the payroll, he has since then been a loyal Clinton partisan.
And of loyalty, it is well known, the Clintons are extremely jealous. In their 2014 book HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, Amie Parnes of The Hill and Jonathan Allen of Politico remark that during the fiercely contested 2008 Democratic primaries, Clinton aides kept a “hit list” of Democrats who flipped their loyalty from Hillary to Barack Obama. The list included John Kerry, as well as a whole host of legislators. “Years later,” write Allen and Parnes, Clinton aides “would joke about the fates of folks who they felt had betrayed them. ‘Bill Richardson: investigated; John Edwards: disgraced by scandal; Chris Dodd: stepped down,’ one said to another. ‘Ted Kennedy,’ the aide continued, lowering his voice to a whisper for the punch line, ‘dead.’ ” Consider the reflexive man-the-barricades mentality of aides Cheryl Mills, Jacob Sullivan, and Huma Abedin, and adviser Sidney Blumenthal. In Clinton circles, the worst sin is infidelity (of the political sort, that is).
The Clintons have cultivated that atmosphere, and it is times like the present when it serves its purpose. The effective non-response to the current imbroglio from Clinton circles — the only “official” acknowledgment of any controversy a single risible message from Hillary’s Twitter account — is no doubt a studied maneuver from a couple who have been through this before. From Whitewater to the Rose Law Firm to cattle futures, Hillary Clinton knows how to weather a storm.
And what makes battening down the hatches a viable response is the culture of aggressive loyalty that finds its highest pitch in David Brock, who brings to the Clinton cause a unique mélange of clownishness, self-interest, and hypercompetence. Brock gets to capitalize on the opportunity not to prove he is loyal, but to prove that he is most loyal — the disciple who did not flee — and to reap the benefit when this is all a footnote, because he knows that Hillary will survive — it’s what she does — and he is happy to beclown himself now for future gains. Meanwhile, the Clintons receive the protection of someone who is independent of their operation, who is a notoriously aggressive defender of his chosen causes, and who has a way of making himself the story. Because of that independence they cannot control him. But even if he is an unguided missile, he will attempt to do a great deal of damage to a building anti-Clinton narrative.
So in the view from Chappaqua, Mika Brzezinski’s speechlessness matters little. Just as the Clintons knew he would, David Brock is taking the heat for them, and he will be justly rewarded in the fullness of time, as is the Clinton way.
Well done, good and faithful servant.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at National Review.