Anonymous Sources, Oppo Dumps, Mass Hysteria

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 1 2011 9:36 AM

Anonymous Sources, Oppo Dumps, Mass Hysteria

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 31: Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks at the National Press Club October 31, 2011 in Washington, DC. During a question and answer portion of the program, Cain called the accusations of sexual harassment against him 'a witch hunt'. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

It's quickly become an article of faith on the right that Politico's scoop about Herman Cain's NRA-era sexual harassment settlements was placed by a rival campaign -- an "oppo dump." By whom? No one knows. The lack of sources or knowledge send us tumbling into Lord of the Flies turf, with amusing theories springing up everywhere.

My favorite theory involves Karl Rove, who can't go a week without irritating the GOP's talk radio/Tea Party wing. His take on l'affaire Cain has been pretty dry so far. "You either need to say yes or no," he's advised. "And if no, say no immediately. Say absolutely or not and get on with it. But if you’re sitting there saying go talk to somebody else, it’s not going to help you."

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How do you tie Rove to the Cain story? It's a stretch, but American Crossroads GPS is already in the field in Florida, one of the states that looks good on paper for a Republican U.S. Senate win next year, and one where Sen. Bill Nelson had, up to this week, kept the strongest Republicans out. (Rep. Connie Mack IV just jumped in.) One of the struggling candidates in Florida is Craig Miller, former CEO of Ruth's Chris, and former head of... the National Restaurant Association! Seriously, this was the connection I heard. Just for fun, I asked the campaign about Miller's NRA days. "Thank you for your inquiry," I was told, "but Mr. Miller will not be commenting on the National Restaurant Association at this time."

Moving right on, but the point: Conservatives want a scapegoat, or a target, or something untoward about the story. Robert Stacy McCain nicely sums up the pro-Cain, anti-Politico take on the story -- why, the thing is chock-a-block with anonymous sources!

Without anything more specific -- and especially without any comment from the accusers, who reportedly signed confidentiality agreements as part of severance agreements with the restaurant association -- such accusations would be impossible to disprove, but can be denied, and this was what Cain was expected to do Monday.

The assumption is that... what, the story that protected the identity of the sources, with details that were mostly confirmed by Cain (he's denying that he sexually harassed anyone, but confirming Politico's description of the settlements), is flawed? It must have been planted? Quite the contrary -- on Monday, a number of conservatives I talked to said, for the first time, that some rumors like this had been kicking around the presidential gossip circuit. The fact that other media outlets didn't run the story (this is according to Cain's spokesman, by the way) doesn't tell us that the story is flawed. Nope: The fact that Cain is confirming the details of settlements tells us that Politico got it right. Cain is testing the seams of the GOP base's media distrust. It might work for him. It's still baseless.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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