David Brock, the conservative journalistic assassin turned progressive empire-builder, is sitting in a conference room in the Park Avenue South offices of the MWW Group, a public-relations firm owned by Democratic mega-donor Michael Kempner. Fifty-two years old with a silver pompadour, and wearing round glasses with wire frames, he’s barely recognizable as the skinny, dark-haired operative who, during the Clinton administration, had an answering-machine message that said, “I’m out trying to bring down the president.”
That, of course, was before he publicly repented, first in a 1997 Esquire article, “Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man,” and then in 2002’s self-flagellating book, Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative. It was before he founded Media Matters for America, which monitors the right-wing media, in 2004, and American Bridge, an unprecedented Democratic opposition-research organization, in 2010. It was before he became a favorite of Bill and Hillary Clinton, the very couple he’d spent his years as an enfant terrible trying to destroy.
Yet Brock’s years in the conservative movement still mark him, particularly in how he conceives of his current mission to expose and defeat his former allies. First among the lessons he learned on the other side, he says, “is the idea of permanence. Ideological campaigns for our values have to be waged on a permanent basis and not only in election years.” Further, he says, “you have to have the resources commensurate with your goals if you’re going to hope to achieve them. Money isn’t by a long shot enough, but it’s a prerequisite. Something else I saw on the right, and that I’ve tried to apply in a different context, is recruiting top talent and trying to pay them close to what they’re worth. And the last thing—and this might be the most important—is patience. Goals this big, you’re not going to achieve them overnight.”
These days, Brock has moved well beyond the repentance phase of his political turnaround. He’s no longer trying to ingratiate himself with the Democratic establishment—he’s now a part of it, employing hundreds of people at organizations with budgets in the tens of millions. Recently, his network has been experiencing a spurt of growth—one that’s likely to continue as the Democrats ramp up their efforts on the 2016 race after the disastrous midterm elections.
An avid Hillary Clinton supporter, Brock is already deeply engaged in the presidential contest. His group American Bridge captures almost every public utterance by prominent Republican politicians, using both DC-based researchers and a national network of professional trackers; it currently has people following all of the even remotely plausible contenders for the Republican nomination. Complementing that operation is Correct the Record, a subsidiary of American Bridge that Brock launched last year to push back against misinformation about Democratic presidential candidates, which so far has meant defending Clinton constantly and consistently.
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Meanwhile, in the last year, Brock has expanded into law, ethics and journalism organizations, giving him multiple new fronts for political combat. In August, he took over the corruption watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, prompting fears that the progressive but nonpartisan group—which in the past has gone after members of both parties—will start ignoring the ethical lapses of Democrats. (Brock disputes this. He could, he says, imagine CREW pursuing Democrats under his watch, but he emphasizes that CREW’s history shows there’s simply more corruption to be found on the right.)
The same month he acquired CREW, Brock announced the formation of the American Democracy Legal Fund, which is intended to battle the GOP in the courts and has already filed fifteen complaints against Republicans and Republican-aligned groups. Also, his new journalistic grant-making organization, the American Independent Institute, will give out $320,000 this year to reporters investigating right-wing misdeeds.
When I met with Brock, he suggested that I talk with Howard Dean about the work he’s been doing. Shortly thereafter, Dean e-mailed me to set up the interview. Dean had become chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2005, a year after Brock launched Media Matters, and says he quickly realized that Brock had “the best communications shop on the left. He had an ability to crystallize issues, mobilize people and call out the Republicans—and the Democrats to this day are still floundering over that.”
“It never occurred to me that David Brock needed to be redeemed,” Dean adds. “He redeemed himself.”
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Journalists writing about Brock’s growing web of organizations sometimes say he aims to be the Democratic Karl Rove. A better analogy, though, might be that he’s becoming a liberal version of Paul Weyrich, an architect of the modern conservative movement who founded or co-founded the Free Congress Foundation, the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, among other organizations.
“Beginning in the early 1970s…Weyrich set out to create an infrastructure on the right—political and legal interest groups, coalitions, think tanks, magazines, and political action committees—to rival that of the left,” Brock wrote in Blinded by the Right. Within a decade, “Weyrich’s operation dwarfed anything like it on the left, making it possible for people like me to flock to Washington in droves and find jobs.”
Brock’s early career is a testament to the power of the right’s ideological apparatus to recruit and nurture new talent. Arriving at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1981, he was a liberal Democrat, his politics formed, in many ways, by his alienation as a closeted gay teenager growing up in a crushingly conservative Dallas suburb. At Berkeley, though, he found himself repelled by the culture of doctrinaire leftism and swung the other way. Once he did, he was embraced by a well-organized right-wing network ready to groom smart young foot soldiers.
As an undergraduate, Brock started a neoconservative weekly, the Berkeley Journal, financed by conservative alumni, and published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, “Combating Those Campus Marxists.” John Podhoretz, then the editor of Insight, the magazine of The Washington Times, noticed it, flew him to DC for an interview and gave him a job as a writer. Next, Brock moved to a fellowship at the Heritage Foundation underwritten by the John M. Olin Foundation, and then a job at the money-losing American Spectator magazine, which was primarily supported by the billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. There, a right-wing heiress offered to fund a “special investigation” into Anita Hill, who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment; it eventually became Brock’s scurrilous bestselling book, The Real Anita Hill.
Next, he became a key player in the campaign to bring down Bill Clinton. It was Brock who gave us the trumped-up “Troopergate” story, introducing the world to a woman named Paula, who later came forward as Paula Jones. Her sexual-harassment lawsuit against Clinton—waged, in part, by the Rutherford Institute, a conservative Christian legal group—would ultimately lead to the exposure of the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, and to his impeachment.
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It took years for Democratic funders to awaken to the need to build an intellectual infrastructure to compete with the one that almost destroyed Clinton’s presidency, and that later helped to put George W. Bush in the White House. In 2003 and 2004, Rob Stein, a prominent figure in Democratic politics, began showing select groups of progressive donors, politicians and activists a PowerPoint presentation that he’d created, “The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix,” which laid out the internal workings of the modern right. One slide broke down how much right-wing donors were spending, as of 2002, to maintain their ideological apparatus, including $200 million on think tanks, $46 million on legal advocacy and $11 million on media monitors.
Former New York Times Magazine political reporter Matt Bai devoted a chapter of his 2007 book, The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, to Stein and his “Killer Slide Show.” Bai wrote: “Wealthy contributors on both coasts told me that Rob’s slides had awakened them, at last, to the truth of what was happening in American politics. They stumbled back onto Wall Street or Wilshire Boulevard or the Embarcadero blinking into the sunlight, as if having witnessed a revelation.”
In 2005, Stein organized about 100 of these donors, including George Soros and Peter Lewis, into the Democracy Alliance, a group that agreed to direct money toward building progressive institutions. In its first year, the Democracy Alliance brought $1.75 million in new funding to Media Matters, making up more than a fifth of its budget. (Other recipients included CREW, the Center for American Progress, America Votes and the powerful progressive-voter database Catalist.)
Donors loved Brock’s conversion story, particularly since he’d been inside the machine they hoped to replicate. And Brock, in partnership with fundraiser Mary Pat Bonner—often described as his secret weapon—has turned out to be unparalleled at maintaining rich liberals’ loyalty and support. “The two of them together are probably the most effective major-individual-donor fundraising team ever assembled in the independent-expenditure progressive world,” Stein says.
That wouldn’t matter, however, if Brock couldn’t show his backers that he’s effective. Over the years, Media Matters has won or assisted in a number of tangible victories, from getting Glenn Beck off cable news to holding 60 Minutes accountable for its faulty Benghazi reporting. It obviously hasn’t shut down Fox News, which remains the highest-rated cable network, but Brock is persuasive when he argues that his group has been key in convincing the mainstream media to take Fox News less seriously.
“When we started, the right-wing media were operating with total impunity, and with no consequences or repercussions for anything they said or did,” Brock asserts. “And that’s changed. Not to the extent that we’d like—we’re still working on it—but they don’t get away with what they used to get away with. I think we’ve had success in marginalizing and discrediting a lot of those characters.”
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American Bridge was the natural next step. By means of this group, Brock took the Media Matters method—which involves monitoring virtually every word uttered by the right-wing media—and transferred it to the realm of Republican politicians. “There’s no organization that does the level of tracking and research that we do,” says American Bridge president Brad Woodhouse, who previously served as communications director for the DNC. “The parties don’t do it; the campaigns don’t invest in it. There’s no one that has the ability to pull this type of stuff—video, news archives, our own video archives—as quickly and as cleanly to use in a rapid-response fashion as we do.”
As its archive grows, Woodhouse expects the organization to only become more powerful. “The true testament to this is going to be what our archive looks like five years from now,” he says. Woodhouse is sitting in his office on the sixth floor of the DC Chinatown building that houses American Bridge as well as Media Matters—a floor that, with its high ceilings, exposed pipes and Ping-Pong table, looks more like a tech start-up than a wonky political shop. Gesturing around, he notes: “This whole floor will be nothing but servers at some point, full of all of our tracking footage, all of what we’ve captured from radio interviews, television interviews, both nationally and locally. There won’t be anybody who has that.” As of this year, American Bridge staffers can search the archives by audio, meaning that they needn’t sit through hours of footage to find a particular incriminating name or phrase.
Initially, American Bridge was greeted with skepticism by Democratic insiders and journalists alike. As a devoted Clintonite, Brock had little connection with Obama’s people, who were wary of independent-expenditure groups, as were some of his own donors. “[W]hen Brock went to his donor base and asked, it did not step up,” wrote Jason Zengerle in a 2011 New York magazine profile. “For the first time in his fund-raising career, Brock didn’t have the magic touch. Peter Lewis, for instance, hasn’t given any money…. In the end, Brock was forced to dramatically scale back his plans.”
Reports of American Bridge’s failure, however, turned out to be premature. Shortly after the profile ran, Brock met with Lewis in his New York apartment, and the billionaire agreed to become an American Bridge seed funder. More important, American Bridge would have an enormous impact on the 2012 elections, where it deployed trackers in thirty-three states. One of them was watching the local Missouri television station KTVI when Senate candidate Todd Akin opined about “legitimate rape” being unlikely to result in pregnancy.
Akin’s remark in many ways defined the 2012 election cycle, powering the idea that the GOP was fighting a war on women. As Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, points out, without American Bridge, the remark might not have made any impact at all. Akin’s “bizarre rant,” he says, “would have been a tree falling in the forest—but some nerd from American Bridge saw that. Todd Akin would be a United States senator if it wasn’t for David Brock and his team.”
Begala, like Dean, is an unabashed Brock fan. He’s quick to emphasize that American Bridge’s value isn’t limited to capturing gotcha moments. As an adviser to Priorities USA Action, a major Democratic Super PAC, Begala says of American Bridge: “They produced for us a 950-page book of every business deal of Mitt Romney’s career. We spent something like $65 million [in the 2012 election], and I believe every single ad was in some ways informed by Brock’s research.”
Unfortunately for Democrats, there wasn’t an Akin moment in the 2014 cycle. American Bridge may have been a victim of its own success, as Republicans went to great lengths not to provide Brock and his allies with new fodder. “Little was left to chance: Republican operatives sent fake campaign trackers—interns and staff members brandishing video cameras to record every utterance and move—to trail their own candidates,” The New York Times reported the day after the election. “In media training sessions, candidates were forced to sit through a reel of the most self-destructive moments of 2012, when Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock’s comments on rape and pregnancy helped sink the party.”
Ultimately, relentless tracking operations—which Republicans, taking a page from Brock, are now deploying against Democrats—may portend a future in which candidates are even less candid than they are now, and the only viable politicians are those who learn to spout vapid talking points the moment they win their first State Senate race or City Council seat. Yet Brock insists that tracking will remain important. The very structure of American politics, in which Republicans must win over far-right voters in primaries before tacking to the center in general elections, ensures a degree of flip-flopping and dissimulation that Democrats can exploit. “It’s a bit overstated that tracking is only looking for the ‘macaca’ moment,” says Brock, referring to the slur caught on camera that derailed Senator George Allen’s re-election bid in 2006. “Tracking is very, very valuable for when candidates change their positions. It’s a versatile thing.”
With a budget of more than $17 million and some eighty-plus staffers, American Bridge has grown even bigger than Media Matters, which has a staff of just under eighty and a budget of $10 million. In addition to tracking every Republican Senate candidate and plausible presidential contender in 2016, it also has people following twenty-one gubernatorial campaigns and a number of House races. Further, through its “Rising Stars” program, American Bridge is tracking Republicans who aren’t running for major office now, but who might one day go on to national prominence—people like George P. Bush, Jeb Bush’s son and a candidate for Texas land commissioner.
“When somebody who ran for Congress in 2012 runs for president in 2028, we’re going to have an archive full of material,” says American Bridge chief operating officer Jessica Mackler.
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No matter how big his operations get, however, there are still some fundamental ways Brock can never achieve a true analogue of the right-wing network that launched his career. One reason for this—and the reason that most on the left can applaud—is simply that Brock has more integrity than his previous employers. For all the comprehensiveness of his opposition research, Brock no longer traffics in sexual innuendo or character assassination; Begala says he’s never received a single morsel of personal dirt from American Bridge. The ugliness of Brock’s early career, Begala adds, left him with a “marrow-deep aversion to the politics of personal destruction. It’s definitional with David. I’ve been around him a fair amount ever since then, and I’ve never heard him say, ‘Let’s go after John Doe—he beats his dog!’ Nothing like that.”
But if Brock isn’t as ethically unconstrained as his old friends, he’s also not as passionately ideological. In the end, his political journey has taken him roughly back to where he started: he’s a center-left Democrat, uninterested in any sort of radicalism. His final exit from conservatism, after all, happened after he set out to write a book trashing Hillary Clinton and came, instead, to sympathize with her. Since then, he’s been transformed into a fervid Clintonite, and he doesn’t hide the fact that he wants to see her elected president. Brock is interested in fighting the right, not in pushing his own party to the left.
In Blinded by the Right, he recalls how one of Weyrich’s first scalps was the Republican Texas senator John Tower, George H.W. Bush’s nominee for defense secretary, who was distrusted by conservatives as a pro-choice moderate. Testifying before the Senate at Tower’s confirmation hearing, Weyrich said, “I have encountered the nominee in a condition—a lack of sobriety—as well as with women to whom he was not married.” These rumors ultimately helped sink the nomination, even though Tower wasn’t married to anyone at the time.
It’s nearly impossible to conceive of Brock mounting a similar attack on a Democratic president’s nominee, even in a less slimy way. He has, however, gone after left-wing critics of the Clintons. When Harper’s published the October cover story “Stop Hillary!” by Doug Henwood, a Nation contributing editor, Correct the Record responded with a point-by-point rebuttal of over 9,000 words. Some of it was convincing, some of it—particularly an earnest defense of Clinton’s record on welfare reform—less so. Whatever you make of it, though, it demonstrated that Brock is willing to fight challenges to the Democratic establishment that come from progressives as well as conservatives.
In fact, should there be a contested Democratic primary, Brock won’t swear off using Correct the Record to defend Hillary Clinton from a left-wing challenger. “We don’t know if Hillary Clinton is running; if she does run, we don’t know whether there will be a contested primary; and if there is, we don’t know what that will look like,” he says. “So I’d just say I’m not going to comment on anything that’s hypothetical.”
It was probably inevitable that an intellectual infrastructure funded by rich progressives wouldn’t be radical in the way of one funded by rich reactionaries. Guy Saperstein, a retired Oakland trial lawyer and major liberal donor, quit the Democracy Alliance in 2008 out of frustration with its failure to invest in new, boundary-pushing left-wing ideas. (The same year, he stopped donating to Brock, whom he admires tremendously, because Brock was “so heavily tilted towards Hillary.”) Much of his frustration came from the fact that his fellow funders seemed more committed to electing Democrats than to deep, systemic ideological change.
“You’ve got to give it to the conservatives,” Saperstein says. “They’ve really run circles around our side. They staked out ground very early on, on subjects where the political consensus would have called them crazy. Of course we need a welfare program—it’s crazy that they would go out and attack the welfare system. But, you know, twenty years later, they have Bill Clinton saluting them! They just moved the whole debate, and they’ve done that in so many areas.”
With few exceptions—gay marriage being a big one—deep-pocketed Democratic donors have rarely shown the zeal or the patience to nurture far-reaching ideological change; they tend, ironically, to be more conservative in the small-c sense. Gara LaMarche, who became president of the Democracy Alliance last year, may begin to change this pattern. He has been vocal about the need for donors to support a progressive vision that extends beyond the next election. “In general, progressives have not been audacious enough,” LaMarche says, speaking about his desire to make the Democracy Alliance “not a cheering section for the Democratic Party, but a place where progressives can actually talk about the long term.”
At this point, however, the Democracy Alliance is far from united in a desire to push Democrats leftward. Its membership, according to LaMarche, “includes everyone from people who are very associated with, let’s say, Elizabeth Warren’s view of economics, to people who have worked in the Clinton administration and have more of an identification with the Rubin wing of the party.” (He’s referring to Robert Rubin, the Goldman Sachs veteran and former director of Citigroup who served as Clinton’s treasury secretary.)
From Brock’s perspective, there is nothing to lament in the fact that liberal donors and institution builders tend to be more moderate than their right-wing counterparts. Members of the conservative establishment can empower right-wing radicals, he says, “because they don’t have any regard for the truth of anything. They have no standards, and they’re very brazen about it. It’s a very different culture on the Democratic/liberal/progressive side.” And it’s within that culture—sensible, nondogmatic and technocratic—that Brock has finally found his place. “I don’t think progressives can abandon their respect for evidence-based conversation and logic, because it’s one of their strengths,” he says. “I don’t think you should throw that away to have a noisier machine.”
More on Hillary Clinton in this issue…
The Editors: “Wanted: A Challenge to Clinton”
The Editors: “How Many Ways Can Goldman Give?”
Anatol Lieven: “A Hawk Named Hillary”
Kathleen Geier, Joan Walsh, Jamelle Bouie, Doug Henwood, Heather Digby Parton, Steven Teles and Richard Yeselson: “Who’s Ready for Hillary?”