Mother Jones strikes again. The magazine that brought us the "47 per cent" speech that killed off Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy came out Tuesday with a recording of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and some of his aides discussing how to attack the actress Ashley Judd if she decided to run for McConnell’s seat.
"Basically," says the person who is leading the discussion, "I refer to her as sort of the oppo research situation where there’s a haystack of needles, just because truly, there’s such a wealth of material."
This tape is beyond fantastic as a primer for students of politics and opposition research. It is an absolutely classic discussion, presumably meant to stay behind closed doors, of how to take apart a "flaky" actress whose national political aspirations might get in the way of your guy.
Does the discussion veer into uncomfortable territory? Of course. This is a high-stakes political race. Every part of a potential opponent’s life is fair game, at least when you’re in the initial stages of shaping an argument against her.
(You have to decide what to use in ads, what to use in speeches, and what to leak to eager reporters.)
The voices on the tape cover a laundry list of potential attack points, none of which is especially shocking:
She "openly supports" President Obama. She’s an "out of touch" Hollywood liberal. She once said San Francisco is her "American city home" and has a cellphone with a 415 prefix. She’s against coal, for cap-and-trade. She supports Obamacare, abortion rights and gay marriage. She views Christianity as a "vestige of patriarchy." She enjoys "native faith practices" and has used the phrase "Brother Donkey" and "Sister Bird" to describe animals.
And then comes the rough stuff: "This sounds extreme," says a voice on the tape, "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."
Judd was never going to be a senator from Kentucky. Despite her ability to raise money, her fame and some fatigue with McConnell, a five-term senator, she could not survive what would surely have been a very bloody battle.
Judd is too liberal, too confessional and way too New Agey to make it in a place that has been a stronghold of the American evangelical right.
She is a woman with a huge heart and titanic feelings who has been rewarded plentifully for her talents. She has survived awful things and done laudable work with survivors of sexual abuse around the world. But her chosen route to larger public connection has been the confessional. She has discussed her breakdowns and her own sexual abuse as a way of ameliorating the terrible stigmatization that still attends these issues.
Last month, at George Washington University in Washington she spoke candidly: "I’m a three-time survivor of rape, and about that I have no shame, because it was never my shame to begin with — it was the perpetrator’s shame."
Her casual approach has sometimes worked against her. Last month, Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post dissected the possibility of a Judd run and printed something, he said later, that sources told him: Judd had mentioned rape in an off-putting way at a dinner party in February in Louisville with some big Kentucky Democrats.
"Asked if she was tough enough to take on McConnell and the GOP national attack machine," Fineman wrote, "Judd reportedly answered, ‘I have been raped twice, so I think I can handle Mitch McConnell.’ "
(To me, this sounds like the kind of bravado potential donors might want to hear from a political neophyte whose baggage includes episodes of emotional fragility.)
While it’s fine to share your struggles, people may not want to invest you with senatorial power when you talk about how American consumerism triggers a breakdown.
The McConnell staffers hear this excerpt from a Judd speech: "You know, I come back to this country. I freak out in airports. The colours, the sounds, all those different ways of packaging the same snack but trying to, you know, make it look like it’s distinct and different and convince consumers that they have to have it. ... The last time I came home from a trip, I absolutely flipped out when I saw pink fuzzy socks on a rack. I mean, I can never anticipate what is going to push me over the edge."
The voice leading the discussion on the tape says, "So pink fuzzy socks are of concern."
There is laughter in the room. No surprise there. No surprise either that Judd announced late last month that she wouldn’t be running for U.S. senator in Kentucky.
"Regretfully," she tweeted, "I am currently unable to consider a campaign for the Senate."
Robin Abcarian is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
— The Los Angeles Times