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Jim Barnett: Scott Brown's Karl Rove

Scott Brown has carefully cultivated a nice-guy image. For many Massachusetts voters, that's all they know about Brown: he seems like a nice guy. But what few people know is that Brown relies heavily on Karl Rove-style tactics and practitioners of his slash-and-burn politics.
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Scott Brown has carefully cultivated a nice-guy image. For many Massachusetts voters, that's all they know about Brown: he seems like a nice guy. But what few people know is that Brown relies heavily on Karl Rove-style tactics and practitioners of his slash-and-burn politics.

It is no accident that before the no-outside-ads deal the Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown campaigns struck, groups controlled by Rove were by far the biggest spenders in the race. And it is no accident at all that Brown decided to hire a protégé of Rove, someone that had worked with Rove in the Bush White House, as his campaign manager. The reason is simple: Scott Brown understands very well that he can't win re-election to the U.S. Senate on the issues or his philosophy. He knows the only way to win this race is to muddy the waters with the kind of ugliness and dirty tricks Rove was and is a master of.

Brown often and publicly bemoans attack ads, but behind the scenes, he made a pivotal decision in the race last year to hire Jim Barnett -- a vicious Republican operative with a record of winning at any cost and drawing comparisons to Rove -- as his campaign manager. Since then, Brown has engaged in one of the most insidious types of negative campaigning -- the kind where he claims he's not responsible while knowing full well what's going on.

There's no question Brown knew what he was getting when he brought Barnett aboard. A glimpse at his career speaks for itself.

Barnett went to college in Washington, D.C., and worked in the George W. Bush White House in 2001 and 2002, when Rove was Bush's senior advisor. "I have great respect for Karl Rove and Lee Atwater," Barnett said, and the two notorious Republicans are regarded as Barnett's "political gurus." (Atwater, for those who don't remember, was Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush's Karl Rove, the mastermind behind the notoriously racist Willie Horton ads. When Atwater knew he was dying of cancer, he famously spent the final months of his life apologizing to the many people he knew he had done wrong.)

After learning the tricks of the trade from Rove in the Bush White House, Barnett moved back to Vermont, and brought what he'd learned at the Bush White House right with him. He worked on Republican Jim Douglas's gubernatorial campaign, and stayed on to become chair of the Vermont Republican Party and aid Douglas's reelection.

Shortly after arriving in Vermont, the independent Vermont newspaper Seven Days reported: "There's more than a wee bit of Dubya's guru Karl Rove in the spunky 28-year-old Vermonter... And he brings with him a Rovian taste for the venomous politics practiced in Foggy Bottom." The Burlington Free Press noted: "While professing to be a political pragmatist, Barnett is an unabashed believer in all-things-Bush." That apparently includes Bush's reliance on underhanded tactics, as Barnett's work in Vermont quickly drew attention for its nastiness, alienating people on both sides of the aisle.

Bruce Post, a former state director for a Republican U.S. senator from Vermont and policy director for a Republican Vermont governor, sent the Burlington Free Press a scathing letter about Barnett. Post wrote that "that the ill-spoken Barnett is to Vermont politics what a pebble is inside a hiker's boot. For a limited time, you can tolerate it, but after a while, the stone becomes so irritating that you have to remove it before going on." He went on to call Barnett "such a clone of Karl Rove." Post would know -- he noted in the letter that he had "once worked" with Bush's mastermind. One Vermont political reporter asked: "Doesn't Post realize that such comparisons make Barnett's head swell?"

In 2004, by the time Douglas was running for reelection against Peter Clavelle, Barnett was known as Douglas's "designated hit man" and his "political hit-man." He earned the moniker.

In an embarrassing episode, Barnett called Clavelle "an angry socialist" and a "left-wing extremist" and gave a reporter a 15-year-old news clip and claimed that Clavelle participated at a rally celebrating the Sandinista rebels. Nobody in Vermont bought the attack. "Vermont is too small. We all know each other and consequently no one really believes Peter Clavelle is a Sandinista in disguise," a University of Vermont professor told the Free Press. Observers at the time described Barnett's tactic as "red-baiting," and Douglas himself told a reporter that Barnett "made a mistake. I've had a frank discussion with Jim and he understands how I feel," Douglas said.

Then there was the time Barnett attempted to plant a false story in the Free Press that "was clearly designed to destroy the integrity of a leading Statehouse environmental lobbyist." Vermont environmentalist Warner Shedd noted that the attack "comes under the category of very dirty political tricks," adding that Barnett was "trying to discredit a person who has an excellent reputation for integrity at the State-house." Barnett again got caught in the crosshairs following actions by two Republican staffers for the Senate Judiciary Committee from 2002 to 2003 to infiltrate Democrats' confidential computer files and shared them with the media. The behavior was widely condemned, and Republican U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch referred to it as "unethical conduct." Yet the website of the Vermont Republican Party, which Barnett was heading, linked directly to a location where visitors could download the stolen e-mails.

These are just a few of the many examples of how Barnett coarsened the political dialogue in Vermont with his persistent and vitriolic attacks. "This is a tone we haven't seen from Republicans until Jim Barnett got here," said Vermont State Senator Jim Condos, when Barnett orchestrated malicious attacks on Democratic state senate candidates.

Barnett earned himself a variety of telling nicknames: "mad dog," "Republican attack dog," one of "the Nasty Boys," a "sharp-toothed political snapper," the "the ferocious political attack pooch," "the evil twin," "Barnett the Bad Cop," "the Pit Bull" who "is always in attack mode," a "White House protégé," and a "Karl Rove character." Eventually, Barnett built such a terrible reputation for himself that he had to flee the state.

The vicious tactics that got Barnett branded a political thug have been on full display in Brown's campaign. Brown's campaign and Republican Party allies have issued nearly 100 nasty press releases against Elizabeth Warren. On Barnett's watch, Republicans have used a constant stream of attack videos to try to erode Warren's substantial support and slow down her fundraising juggernaut. And it won't be any surprise to learn that it was Barnett has served as the driving force behind Scott Brown's classically sleazy Rove-style attacks on Warren's qualifications and heritage. Rather than focusing on issues that actually matter to voters or the future of the country, Barnett has sent one vitriolic statement after another, and called press conferences to call Warren's family liars for citing their Native American heritage.

By all accounts, Barnett's latest attacks have been failing so far. A week after reporters started to report Barnett's latest fabrication, a poll showed Brown and Warren tied. And though Barnett and his underlings have been hammering away on the story for weeks, it looks like they've made little progress. The latest public poll -- a Suffolk University poll released May 23 -- shows Warren and Brown in a dead heat and suggests Warren has emerged "unscathed" from the latest underhanded Jim Barnett onslaught.

These kinds of sleazy attacks are clearly not a new impulse for Barnett. Seven years ago, Peter Clavelle, the former mayor of Burlington campaigning against Barnett's boss Jim Douglas, said that if his opponent "has an issue with me on policy, let's have that debate. But let's put an end to this nonsense of hiding behind Barnett. It's 'Bush League' politics coming to Vermont."

But even more importantly, these kinds of sleazy attacks are nothing new from Republican Party operatives. Lee Atwater and Karl Rove were protégés of the Nixon campaign team that went to prison because of the Watergate scandal. Rove's sleazy attack ads were the opening volley for Scott Brown in this campaign. And now Rove's own proud protégé Jim Barnett is running the same kind of campaign. Maybe hiding behind Barnett is Brown's best hope of holding onto his seat -- it certainly isn't by having an open debate on the issues.

But Brown also faces serious reputation risks by importing Barnett's brand of Rove-inspired sleazy and dirty politics into Massachusetts at the expense of any meaningful discussion on actual policy. After all, Brown has a nice guy image to protect -- and losing it might be just as harmful as owning up to his positions on the issues. It's unlikely Brown will choose a different path, ditching Barnett and tossing the Rove playbook. But Warren's supporters should know what Warren is in for: a long, brutal, nasty fight ahead.

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