Chalking Up Montana As A Democratic Loss

Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., and other senators rush to the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 20
Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., and other senators rush to the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, for a vote to extend the Treasury's borrowing authority. After a dramatic Senate tally in which top GOP leaders cast the crucial votes, must-pass legislation to allow the government to borrow money to pay its bills cleared Congress Wednesday for President Barack Obama's signature.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

I had intended to write a column today to take an overview of all the close races for Senate seats. Every so often, I like to take a look at what the chances are for both parties to make gains in November (or, this year, to see whether the Republicans are going to gain a majority, realistically). Instead, after seeing the recent news from the New York Times, what is now called for is kissing goodbye any chances that the Montana Senate seat up for grabs will stay Democratic. To be blunt: there is now exactly zero chance of that happening, and we should all chalk up one guaranteed Republican gain in the Senate. The revelations that John Walsh plagiarized a major paper in college have now completely torpedoed his chances for retaining the seat. To be fair, there was little chance that Walsh was going to win in any case. But the difference between "little chance" and "no chance" can be measured in hope. There is now no hope for Democrats in Montana, this year.

Democrats were likely to lose this seat because the strongest candidate decided not to run. Brian Schweitzer is a well-liked ex-governor and would likely have held onto the Senate seat for Democrats. But he wasn't interested in becoming a senator -- perhaps because he has his sights set higher, on a presidential run. He expressed his feelings in no uncertain terms, by stating: "Congress is a miserable place. If a bus ran over a senator or a congressman tomorrow, we wouldn't even miss them." So Schweitzer wasn't ever going to save this seat for Democrats, even though lots of Democrats sincerely wished he had done so. John Walsh sits in the Senate now because he was appointed to the seat when Max Baucus became ambassador to China. So even though he's already in the Senate, he's never been elected to the spot by the state's voters. Being this type of "incumbent" doesn't really guarantee election (at least not in the way that an elected incumbent has such an advantage). Few Democratic strategists really expected Walsh to win this year, reflecting his standing in the polls versus his Republican opponent.

Walsh is a military man, and proud of it. Democrats aren't known for having lots of ex-military politicians in general, so Walsh was a welcome addition to the party (Democrats are all about diversity, right?). But his military record was already slightly tarnished by a previous mini-scandal, and the fact that he copied -- without attribution -- anywhere from one-fourth to one-third of his final paper for a master's degree from the War College is going to make him completely unacceptable to the voters. Running as an ex-military candidate means running on a military tradition of honor, but when that honor is tarnished it can cut even deeper than with non-military politicians, in the eyes of the public.

Plagiarism isn't a major crime, of course. Politicians plagiarize all the time, in fact -- sometime consciously, sometimes not. They'll use a phrase or a paragraph in a speech and not give credit for the idea's originator. Sometimes they get caught, sometimes they get away with it. Even when caught red-handed, some politicians manage to put it behind them (such as Rand Paul, who has been caught multiple times without it hurting his standing much with Kentucky voters).

Finding such plagiarism is a pretty hard slog, too. Just think of the amount of opposition research required to unearth plagiarism on a college paper from a long time ago. You'd have to do a pretty thorough search of everything publicly available (even when the only copy is sitting on a dusty shelf in some college library), and then you'd have to run literally every sentence from every bit of writing you found through a search engine, to find out if anyone else had publicly written exactly the same thing. Most of this incredibly boring work would turn out to be fruitless. You'd have to sift a lot of hay to find one needle.

Obviously, someone took the time to do so for John Walsh. Whether it was the New York Times who performed this laborious search or whether it was done by Republican opposition researchers and the results just passed along to a reporter is really immaterial. It doesn't matter who baked the cookies when you're caught with your hand in the jar, in other words. The point is the plagiarism was found and has now been exposed. Walsh has no ready explanation. That's all it is going to take.

Now, you can argue (plenty of politicians already have) that plagiarism isn't all that big a deal. This argument is a lot stronger when you're making it because you used someone else's words in a political speech. Nobody expects a political speech to come with footnotes, after all. And since politicians (from the same party, at least) routinely offer support for the same issues, there's bound to be a lot of overlap in general. But that's in political speeches and political writing. Plagiarism has a sliding scale, in the world of politics, and speeches are at the lowest end of that scale. The other end -- the worst possible infraction -- would be to pass someone's writing off as your own in a book that you write to put money in your pocket. For example, if it had been discovered that Hillary Clinton had "borrowed" one-fourth of her new book, she would likely be disgraced so badly she wouldn't even run for president. It's a cardinal sin, as opposed to lifting a few sentences in a political speech.

Walsh's plagiarism falls somewhere in between. It wasn't for personal profit, but it was for personal gain (to earn himself an advanced college degree). It wasn't for political reasons, and he was definitely passing others' work off as his own. Which makes it a pretty serious offense, especially when you add in the whole question of honor for an ex-military politician. I could -- barely -- see a certain type of politician survive such a scandal, but the circumstances would have to be otherwise perfect to do so. If this had been uncovered right after an election (instead of right before), then a politician might be able to survive it in the next election. If the politician were well-loved by his constituents (with sky-high approval ratings), then people might brush it off as a youthful mistake. If the politician were extremely charismatic and hadn't built his public persona around being ex-military, then the voters might also forgive and forget. Unfortunately for Walsh, though, none of those really apply to him.

Walsh is (not to put too fine a point on it) now toast. His shot at holding onto his Senate seat is essentially over. Democrats should focus their energy on winning other Senate races this time around, and should just chalk up Montana as a loss. Many already did so when Schweitzer said he wouldn't run, but now everyone should just throw in the towel on this particular race. It ain't over 'til it's over (which I fully cite the great Western philosopher Yogi Berra for stating); but at this point for Walsh, it really is over.


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