Lots of eyes rolled around the political chattering classes when Politico brandished a trophy obtained by its crack reporting team:
A briefing memo accidentally left behind at a restaurant here showed Kamala Harris’ staff expected her to be grilled on her lack of presence in the state as well as her campaign’s “summer slump.”
The document, obtained exclusively by POLITICO, detailed intricacies of her campaign’s relationships with Granite Staters she was set to meet last weekend — from how much her campaign has donated to local politicians to advice she received from a local TV reporter. It included talking points to rebut expected criticisms from voters or reporters, such as the limited number of visits she’s made to the first-in-the-nation primary state and her lackluster poll results.
When an “internal memo” gets into the news media, there are basically four explanations: (1) it really is an accident; (2) it’s a deliberate campaign leak to get attention for some message it wants to publicize; (3) an opposing campaign got ahold of it and is trying to embarrass a rival; or (4) a faction in the campaign involved is trying to discredit another faction by exposing a dubious strategy.
Often it’s hard to tell which explanation is accurate. Late in the 2016 Democratic nominating contest, an internal Bernie Sanders campaign memo was allegedly left in a Los Angeles hotel restaurant. It was potentially embarrassing in that it revealed that Team Bernie was shaking down the DNC for concessions (e.g., a private plane) before Sanders would commit to a robust schedule of events supporting the Democratic ticket. But it also made public Sanders’s intention to campaign for said ticket at a time when a lot of his supporters were still furiously claiming the nomination had been “rigged” for Hillary Clinton. Accident, deliberate leak, rival leak, faction leak? Beats me.
In 2011 an Obama reelection campaign memo went public suggesting that POTUS was going to be “tacking to the left” in 2012. That might have been an accident, or it might have been a calculated move designed to placate restive Democratic progressives.
One of the most famous leaked “internal campaign memos” in recent years created quite the brouhaha in May 2007, when the New York Times published the gist of it:
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign considered — and rejected — a plan to stop competing in Iowa, the traditional kickoff state in the nominating process, and to concentrate instead on later states including the 20 that will vote on a single day in early February.
The recommendation to pull out of Iowa was contained in a memo written by Mike Henry, Mrs. Clinton’s deputy campaign manager. He made a case that Iowa would consume too much time and money that could be better invested elsewhere.
How did the Times get the memo?
A copy of the memorandum was provided to The New York Times, through an intermediary, who said it had been obtained by a rival campaign.
That could well be true. Henry’s argument was the Iowa political equivalent of the Sin Against the Holy Ghost (an unforgivable offense), and provoked immediate and repeated denials that HRC would even think of disrespecting the Iowa caucuses. But it could be that an internal Clinton campaign faction, with or without a rival campaign as the intermediary, wanted to kill any possibility of Henry’s advice being accepted. And at least one observer at the time thought Henry might have leaked his own memo to air his heretical point of view. As it happens, he was right: HRC blew through virtually her entire campaign treasury only to finish third in the caucuses, and might have been finished if not for an upset win over Barack Obama in New Hampshire.
So it’s hard to tell how and why these things happen. When I worked for Georgia governor Zell Miller, a newly hired assistant of mine at a regional governors’ conference in Richmond accidentally handed a fax to an Atlanta reporter who was covering the event. Turns out it was a confidential memo to the governor from the consultants planning Miller’s reelection campaign; it included private polling info and several policy initiatives (including a tax cut) under consideration but still under wraps. It all wound up on the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the next morning, along with the assertion that we were deliberately leaking this stuff 500 miles away from home as some sort of weird misdirection play. I spent anxious hours wondering if I and/or my assistant would be fired, until I heard Miller’s policy director say: “This is great. They think we’re crazy.”
So who knows what’s behind the Harris campaign’s “accident?” My first thought was: Who under the age of 70 still prints out memos and carries them around? My second thought was: Other the other hand, you can’t hack a hard copy! There are things in the memo about Harris’s alleged lack of attention to New Hampshire that were somewhat embarrassing. But it also provided the campaign’s own response to the deadly media narrative that Harris had blown it in the second candidate debate and that the nomination contest is now a three-candidate race with the Californian running a poor fourth. It was just a “summer slump,” the campaign is telling itself (or telling the world via Politico).
Perhaps all will be revealed in some campaign book (particularly if Harris manages to win). But more likely, this incident will be forgotten until the next time an internal campaign memo is left on a restaurant table.