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Groundswell: Conservatives’ Lame Answer to JournoList

groundswell-montage-mojo-david-corn

It seems conservatives have a JournoList all their own.

MoJo’s David Corn breaks the story in “Inside Groundswell: Read the Memos of the New Right-Wing Strategy Group Planning a ’30 Front War.’

Believing they are losing the messaging war with progressives, a group of prominent conservatives in Washington—including the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and journalists from Breitbart News and the Washington Examiner—has been meeting privately since early this year to concoct talking points, coordinate messaging, and hatch plans for “a 30 front war seeking to fundamentally transform the nation,” according to documents obtained by Mother Jones.

Dubbed Groundswell, this coalition convenes weekly in the offices of Judicial Watch, the conservative legal watchdog group. During these hush-hush sessions and through a Google group, the members of Groundswell—including aides to congressional Republicans—cook up battle plans for their ongoing fights against the Obama administration, congressional Democrats, progressive outfits, and the Republican establishment and “clueless” GOP congressional leaders. They devise strategies for killing immigration reform, hyping the Benghazi controversy, and countering the impression that the GOP exploits racism. And the Groundswell gang is mounting a behind-the-scenes organized effort to eradicate the outsize influence of GOP über-strategist/pundit Karl Rove within Republican and conservative ranks. (For more on Groundswell’s “two front war” against Rove—a major clash on the right—click here.)

One of the influential conservatives guiding the group is Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a columnist for the Daily Caller and a tea party consultant and lobbyist. Other Groundswell members include John Bolton, the former UN ambassador; Frank Gaffney, the president of the Center for Security Policy; Ken Blackwell and Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council; Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch; Gayle Trotter, a fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum; Catherine Engelbrecht and Anita MonCrief of True the Vote; Allen West, the former GOP House member; Sue Myrick, also a former House GOPer; Diana Banister of the influential Shirley and Banister PR firm; and Max Pappas, a top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

A collection of conservative activists meeting to devise messaging strategy is hardly news. It happens all the time across the political spectrum. Nor is it news that, while they appear from most vantage points to be firmly in control of the Republican Party, more radical conservatives fear that they’re losing the messaging war and losing control of the party to professional Republican politicos like Rove, who care more about winning than The Movement.

Nor is the activity itself particularly nefarious:

Groundswell has collaborated with conservative GOPers on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Cruz and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a leading tea partier. At its weekly meetings, the group aims to strengthen the right’s messaging by crafting Twitter hashtags; plotting strategy on in-the-headlines issues such as voter ID, immigration reform, and the sequester; promoting politically useful scandals; and developing “action items.”

A certain amount of secrecy cloaks Groundswell’s efforts. Though members have been encouraged to zap out tweets with a #GSW hashtag, a message circulated to members of its Google group noted that the role of certain advocates should be kept “off of the Google group for OPSEC [operational security] reasons.” This “will avoid any potential for bad press for someone if a communication item is leaked,” the message explained. (The Groundswell documents were provided to Mother Jones by a source who had access to its Google group page and who has asked not to be identified.)

Indeed, Corn concedes as much:

Washington is full of coalitions that meet to coordinate messaging and strategy. For two decades, conservative strategist Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, has held his now-famous Wednesday morning meetings for a broad spectrum of Republicans, including conservatives opposed to gay rights and abortion rights and those who favor them, as well as GOPers on different sides of the immigration reform debate. Groundswell, which meets at the same time as Norquist’s group, appears to be a more ideologically pure version of the Norquist confab, and its emergence—given the prominent role of Ginni Thomas and the participation of journalists—prompts several intriguing questions.

Such as?

Critics have contended that Thomas’ work as a lobbyist opposing Obamacare posed a conflict of interest for her husband, who would rule on the constitutionality of the health care reform initiative. (Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court minority that favored striking down the law.) And Common Cause has maintained that Justice Thomas had a conflict of interest when he participated in the Citizens United case because his wife at the time was running a conservative nonprofit fighting the “tyranny” of President Barack Obama that would benefit from removing limits on such groups’ spending and fundraising. With her involvement in Groundswell—which zeroes in on contentious issues that come before the high court, including voting rights, abortion, and gay marriage—Ginni Thomas continues to be intricately associated with matters on which her husband may have to render a decision. Ginni Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.

I don’t like it, either. But we live in an era where federal judges, Members of Congress, presidents, high-powered regulators, and other key policymakers are married to people with careers of their own. We can’t expect them to recuse themselves every time there’s an overlap in interests.  [UPDATE: We've written at length about this controversy before.  See "New York Times Shocked That Clarence Thomas's Wife Has A Job," "Clarence Thomas Failed to Report Wife's Income," "Virginia Thomas Now Lobbying Members Of Congress, So What?" and "Chief Justice Roberts Defends Kagan, Thomas Recusal Decisions On Health Care Lawsuit" for a good sampling. It's worth noting that Thomas actually recuses himself quite often because of various financial and family conflicts.] And, surely, Thomas’ votes on the cases in question were in line with his longstanding judicial philosophy; there’s simply no reason to think he ruled as he did because of his wife’s activities.

The participation of journalists in coordinating messaging with ideological advocates and political partisans raises another set of issues. Conservatives expressed outrage when news broke in 2009 about Journolist, a private email list where several hundred progressive-minded reporters, commentators, and academics exchanged ideas and sometimes bickered. (I was on Journolist, mainly as a lurker.) The late Andrew Breitbart once offered $100,000 for the full Journolist archives and denounced it as “the epitome of progressive and liberal collusion that conservatives, Tea Partiers, moderates and many independents have long suspected and feared exists at the heart of contemporary American political journalism.” The Groundswell documents show conservative journalists, including several with Breitbart News, colluding on high-level messaging with leading partisans of the conservative movement.

This strikes me as a more interesting question in theory but not in practice. The journalists in question:

Breitbart News reporters Matthew Boyle and Mike Flynn, Washington Examiner executive editor Mark Tapscott, and National Review contributor Michael James Barton.

These people write for unabashedly partisan outlets; they’re not masquerading as straight news reporters.  And, yes, both Doug Mataconis and I made the  same defense of JournoList and thought the “scandal” was wildly overblown for exactly that reason. While I thought Dave Weigel should have been fired from his WaPo beat “covering” conservatives after some of his embarrassing rants on JournoList came out, I also applauded the Washington Post Company’s hiring him back at Slate. Professional punditry and reporting are simply different animals.

The only name on the list I know is Mark Tapscott, who befriended me back when he was working for Heritage and for whom I wrote a few pieces after he became editorial page editor of The Examiner.  His actions here strike me as beyond reproach:

 In March, Mark Tapscott, the executive editor of the conservative Washington Examiner, sent his most recent column to group members. It focused on a theme that Groundswellers had resolved to hype: President Obama is a divider. And after a meeting that month, Tapscott wrote to the group, “Enjoyed hearing from all of you who spoke earlier today. It’s amazing how much we are accomplishing on so many fronts.” But Tapscott tells Mother Jones that after attending one or two meetings at the invitation of Ginni Thomas, he decided to stop participating: “The implication of attending is that you’re participating in their planning, and, as a journalist, I don’t think that’s appropriate. Other journalists may think differently.”

So, a guy who regularly writes political opinion columns for a conservative newspaper circulated some of his columns to some other conservatives to get some feedback? But, even though he makes no pretense of being other than a socially conservative Republican who advocates like positions for a living, he was nonetheless uncomfortable being part of strategy sessions and so stopped attending? Hardly a scandal there.

Groundswell has forged a particularly close relationship with Breitbart. Matthew Boyle, one of Breitbart‘s more prominent reporters, has attended Groundswell meetings, used the group as a source for tips and a mechanism to promote his stories, and joined in its efforts to whip up coordinated bullet points to be deployed by conservative advocacy shops. In February, he tried to enlist the group to push a story he had written the year before at the Daily Caller, in which he maintained the Justice Department was in cahoots with the liberal group Media Matters to smear conservative whistleblowers and journalists. In a long note addressed to all Groundswellers—written at a time when reporter Bob Woodward was making (what turned out to be inflated) claims about the Obama White House intimidating foes—Boyle said, “Figured this might be a good time to bring this story back up and see if there’s a way to drive it.”

Boyle said he was hoping to prompt congressional Republicans to launch an investigation. He contended he had only revealed the “tip of the iceberg” and shared his suspicion that many government agencies (State, the CIA, the Pentagon, the EPA, and more) were conspiring with “far left wing groups” to undermine conservatives in the media: “I think we can get at the heart of the Obama admin’s weaknesses here.” He explained: “Any evidence obtained would be more proof of collusion between the administration and the media and far left groups, while at the same time serving as evidence of whatever ridiculously moronic big government policies they’re pushing are.”

The following month, Boyle sent a message to Groundswell members seeking tips and offering to help shape stories Groundswellers wanted to disseminate: “I’m saying we can get pieces out fast on Breitbart. Whenever you have an idea, email or call me with a pitch and I’ll do my best to get the story out there. Keep us on offense, them on defense. Even if the idea isn’t perfect, I can help massage it to get there.”

I’ve made it clear in the past that I consider the Breitbart operation sleazy. They made their name with ambush “reporting” that, we soon learned, was mostly fabricated. They’ve run afoul of the law more than once in their absurd sting operations. And, for the most part, they seem to be a bunch of conspiracy nuts.  So, I’m not sure how they could lose any journalistic credibility.

The interesting issue here is that they were apparently trying to get government officials to launch investigations into their enemies. But it reads as the wild schemes of amateurs, not something they had any chance of pulling off. Indeed, that seems to describe the entire Groundswell operation, at least as portrayed in Corn’s three pager.

UPDATE: The Center for American Progress’ Matt Duss points out via Twitter that Groundswell was “actually doing what they claimed JournoList was doing – coordinating coverage – and JournoList wasn’t.” That’s a fair point. While the association immediately jumped to mind because of passing similarities, they’re actually rather different enterprises. JournoList was a rather large group of left-leaning journalists, academics, and other thinkers exchanging information via an email listserv. To the extent any convergence of coverage was going on, it was incidental. Groundswell is first and foremost a political communications operation which includes some conservative opinion journalists as part of the messaging.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Mark Ivey says:

    “But it reads as the wild schemes of amateurs, not something they had any chance of pulling off.”

    So let these dickhead “conservative” grifter´s fight a GOP civil war against Rove´s “conservative” grifter´s while i watch. Excellent political comedy.

    :))

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  2. PJ says:

    Another self inflicted #GSW to the head by Republicans.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  3. superdestroyer says:

    Who cares? It sounds like a meeting of people who cannot count and who refuse to understand quantitative analysis. There is no way that conservatives are going to influence policy in the future no matter how much they concentrate on messaging.

    I guess is there way to try to stay relevant for a few more years until demographic change in the U.S. so overwhelms conservative politics that no one will care about conservatives anymore.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 8

  4. steve says:

    I think you generally nail it here. Like minded people getting together to discuss their agendas is perfectly legit. Only the most naive among us think that doesnt happen al the time already. However, when journalists join and then attempt to influence public policy in a coordinated fashion, I think that is a bit different. I would prefer this be handled by full disclosure, but I have no idea how you can make sure that happen.

    That said, you are totally wrong on this.

    “I don’t like it, either. But we live in an era where federal judges, Members of Congress, presidents, high-powered regulators, and other key policymakers are married to people with careers of their own. We can’t expect them to recuse themselves every time there’s an overlap in interests.”

    Heaven knows I am probably in a minority here, and have been through this discussion on the law blogs several times, but this is wrong. There are so many ways to channel money and influence to the court through a spouse, and their family for that matter, that this should not be condoned. If your spouse wants to be a political activist, then step down. There really are many, many more than 9 people in the US who are qualified to occupy a SCOTUS position. Appearances matter at that level. Very few of us really believe that the court decides in an impartial manner anymore. This reinforces and contributes to that belief. The failure of the legal profession to not take on this issue is just one more reason why there is little trust in our judiciary.

    Steve

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 43 Thumb down 0

  5. Woody says:

    While I’m not as sanguine about conflicts of interest within the Thomas household (I believe the SCOTUS should be held to a pristine standard), I’m not particularly troubled nor impressed by the Groundswell story.

    The Republican Right already has a pronounced problem with a cocoon as it is. If right-leaning journalists wish to preview their pieces – whether to get feedback or to win approval – there is a real tendency toward groupthink and calcification of thought.

    It’s not as if it’s difficult to predict most* Republican journalists’ position on, well, anything these days, is it? Coordinated, confluence, or mere chance – how can one tell?

    *There are several significant exceptions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  6. C. Clavin says:

    Journolist…Benghaziiii…IRS…the AP…Acorn…

    There…I just wanted to save Jenos from having to put down his/her Cheetos to copy and paste his/her formulaic comment.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  7. mantis says:

    According to several commenters who harped on Journolist for years afterward, the listserv was a threat to our democracy. I’m sure they’ll feel the same about this, right?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 0

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    that Groundswell was “actually doing what they claimed JournoList was doing – coordinating coverage – and JournoList wasn’t.” That’s a fair point.

    Yes but, IOKIYAR.

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  9. I’m confused to as why people are giving Clarence Thomas a pass. He not only is involved in cases to which his wife’s organizations have been and are a party, but he also failed to disclosed her employment with the various organizations for 13 years. The guy is on the Supreme Court of the United States, and he can’t figure out how to complete a simple disclosure form? He suddenly forgot that he needed to disclose her employment in 1996, which he had previously properly disclosed?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 30 Thumb down 1

  10. Barry says:

    James: “We can’t expect them to recuse themselves every time there’s an overlap in interests. ”

    Actually, we can and we should.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 31 Thumb down 0

  11. Buffalo Rude says:

    I don’t think any of this is scandalous. In fact, I hope this band of misfit victim addicts and professional whiners get lots of play both within the GOP and the national media. Pardon me while I go buy some popcorn futures.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  12. C. Clavin says:

    What is unknowable…but would be interesting to know…is if Ginnie Thomas’s business was impacted in any way by the failure of her husband efforts to get Obamacare declared un-constitutional.
    That’s the proof of the pudding.
    The relationship makes me uneasy…and I believe has the appearance of impropriety.
    But lacking real proof…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  13. Rafer Janders says:

    @Barry:

    James: “We can’t expect them to recuse themselves every time there’s an overlap in interests. ”

    Umm, why can’t we?

    And even if I conceded that we can’t expect this with an “overlap in interests”, we can and we should expect them to recuse themselves when there’s a direct conflict of interest, as in the Ginni Thomas case.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 0

  14. @Rafer Janders: And the justices routinely refuse to be involved in cases where they own stock in a company that’s a party before the Supreme Court. A couple years ago, they couldn’t even get a quorum of justices for a case because of the number of recusals.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  15. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    Probably harmless until you get to the clear Thomas conflict of interest. That is where it goes off the rails.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  16. stonetools says:

    While I have no problem with what Groundswell is doing, isn’t karma a b!tch for those, like Jenos, who went on and on about the “threat” posed by Journolist?

    Thomas should have faced discipline for his failure to disclosure his wife’s emlploymennt and for refusal to recuse himself from the ACA case, IMO.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  17. Scott O says:

    Groundswell? I guess Clowncar was taken.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  18. NickTamere says:

    Liberty Central, Ginni Thomas’ group (led by conservative columnist and former FBI agent Gary Aldrich) “was founded with seed money of $550,000 coming from two donors whose names were undisclosed. In a February 2011 article, POLITICO revealed that the initial $500,000 contribution came from Dallas real estate investor Harlan Crow (who is a major GOP donor, a trustee of the American Enterprise Institute, a major contributor to the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth group, and a personal friend of Justice Thomas.)” Liberty Central’s mission is “opposing what Thomas has called the leftist “tyranny” of President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats”.

    Sorry, this doesn’t pass the smell test in the slightest.

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  19. Andre Kenji says:

    The differences between this groundswell thing and JornoList are interesting. Klein´s listserv was filled with academics and people that worked on opinion magazines, while there are many people working on opinion magazines, political strategists, think tankers and people like that on the former.

    That shows a difference between the two sides.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  20. Anonne says:

    Of course there is a clear conflict of interest, with Ginni Thomas. He benefits, directly and indirectly, from her work. Thus his interests are pecuniary and he should recuse himself whenever any of her lobbying activities are at issue.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  21. Tillman says:

    We can’t expect them to recuse themselves every time there’s an overlap in interests.

    What I don’t like about this statement is its tacit admission that power will corrupt the system inevitably, so we shouldn’t attempt to curtail the corruption in our standards.

    I understand you’re trying to say that it wouldn’t be pragmatic for judges married to lobbyists (or stockholders or executives, and so on) to recuse themselves from every case possibly involving an interest of their spouse’s, since every judge is going to be married to a lobbyist etc. in the future. But the point of some standards (like the Mormon ones involving alcohol) isn’t to be pragmatic, but purifying.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  22. Jenos Idanian says:

    I’m with Mr. Joyner here.

    JournoList was a rather large group of left-leaning journalists, academics, and other thinkers exchanging information via an email listserv. To the extent any convergence of coverage was going on, it was incidental. Groundswell is first and foremost a political communications operation which includes some conservative opinion journalists as part of the messaging.

    And the talk about Ginni Thomas is quite surprising, coming from the left. Apparently she should just stay home and bake cookies or something, and not trouble her pretty little head with important, manly things like politics. I guess only liberal wives (Hillary Clinton, Theresa Heinz Kerry, Michele Obama, Elizabeth Edwards, and Huma Abedin Weiner come to mind) are allowed to have and express their own political opinions, work for their causes, and try to be more than just “Mrs. X.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 7

  23. JohnMcC says:

    There is a fairly clear line that connects several (mostly Republican) administrations in making money fairly obviously a special kind of ‘speech’. The gifts to Gov McDonnell’s family is one. The state govenment post given to Mr Art Pope in NorthCarolina is another. Mrs Thomas’ organization and salary makes three. “Money talks” differently than ‘speech’ as you and I know it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  24. mattbernius says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    I’m with Mr. Joyner here.

    JournoList was a rather large group of left-leaning journalists, academics, and other thinkers exchanging information via an email listserv. To the extent any convergence of coverage was going on, it was incidental.

    Glad to hear you’ve finally accepted what we’ve all been saying for quite some time — that the Journolist wasn’t responsible for coordinating and “fixing” news coverage. See, progress can be made.

    I for one welcome this new phase of your commenting here: actually admitting things you’ve gotten wrong in the past and, as one would hope, ceasing to repeat those false talking points in the future.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  25. wr says:

    @Jenos Idanian: Gosh, what a shock. Little Jenos, who screams “Journolist!!!!!!!!” every time he forgets how to spell “Benghazi!!!!!!!!” suddenly has no problem with a group of like minded journalists communicating in private — even though in this case they were doing what the Journolisters specifically weren’t which is trying to influence policy.

    But let’s all take a moment to admire how swiftly he pivots to the standard conservative self pity mode in which he complains that the only two ways for the wife of a supreme court justice to live are either baking cookies or taking money to influence her husband’s decisions. Gosh life is hard on the right!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  26. Rob in CT says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Hilarious.

    Ginny Thomas can do whatever she likes. The issue isn’t that she does stuff. But you know that.

    If Hillary Clinton was a Supreme Court judge, and your head was still intact, you’d be screaming bloody murder if she ruled on a case that involved lobbying by Bill. Bloody. Murder.

    So dishonest.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  27. Tillman says:

    @Rob in CT: Let’s be fair to Jenos, he’s not your average troll. I imagine he’d just harangue the left for being hypocritical on whether spouses can judiciously rule on cases where there is a perceived conflict of interest, if he perceived the liberal commenters here weren’t giving her a hard enough time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. Moosebreath says:

    @Tillman:

    “Let’s be fair to Jenos, he’s not your average troll.”

    True, he brings down the average quite a bit.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  29. Jenos Idanian says:

    Somebody wake me up when Groundswell starts planning to smear and take down specific individuals pour encourager les autres, like JournoList members did.

    In one instance, Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent urged his colleagues to deflect attention from Obama’s relationship with Wright by changing the subject. Pick one of Obama’s conservative critics, Ackerman wrote, “Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares — and call them racists.”

    Michael Tomasky, a writer for the Guardian, also tried to rally his fellow members of Journolist: “Listen folks–in my opinion, we all have to do what we can to kill ABC and this idiocy in whatever venues we have. This isn’t about defending Obama. This is about how the [mainstream media] kills any chance of discourse that actually serves the people.”

    JournoList was about policing the message and enforcing conformity to the liberal party line, with enforcement measures being freely bandied about.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  30. mantis says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Somebody wake me up when Groundswell starts planning to smear and take down specific individuals

    If you were awake in the first place, you might know they are doing exactly that. For instance, this target: Karl Rove!

    The Two Front War: The two front war covers finances and reputation. Rove has relationships built over the last two decades. He must become toxic among the grass roots and among his base.

    OK, you can go back to sleep.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  31. al-Ameda says:

    @Timothy Watson:

    I’m confused to as why people are giving Clarence Thomas a pass. He not only is involved in cases to which his wife’s organizations have been and are a party, but he also failed to disclosed her employment with the various organizations for 13 years. The guy is on the Supreme Court of the United States, and he can’t figure out how to complete a simple disclosure form? He suddenly forgot that he needed to disclose her employment in 1996, which he had previously properly disclosed?

    Justice Thomas purposely ‘forgot’ to disclose his wife’s very relevant employment for over a decade. He should have been forced to resign from the Court years ago.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. Matt Bernius says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    JournoList was about policing the message and enforcing conformity to the liberal party line, with enforcement measures being freely bandied about.

    Oh wait, so you don’t agree with James.

    Could you make up your mind? Or at least try to be consistent in the same thread. I mean who knows what might happen, we might even take you seriously.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0