Senate Democrats brace for John Walsh fallout / A weird
photo of John Walsh
Senate Democrats went into full-fledged damage control Thursday to protect embattled Montana Sen. John Walsh, a day after plagiarism revelations that imperil his election hopes this fall.
Despite a mountain of evidence suggesting that Walsh may have obtained a key academic credential improperly, the party leadership, Montana Democrats and members of the rank and file closed ranks behind the appointed senator — arguing that voters should overlook a relatively minor mistake when weighed against his military service in Iraq and career serving his country.
Or, as Sen. Jon Tester put it, “He’s a soldier, not an academic.”
“It’s a hit, but it’s not a death knell,” said Tester, the Montana Democrat who won a tough reelection bid in 2012. “And I think absolutely, once the facts are out, people will understand it.”
“I think that stacked up against his record, he’s going to run on his record in the National Guard and his service in Montana,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has backed Walsh since the scandal broke. “I think the voters will understand that full picture.”
The revelations in Wednesday’s New York Times report — that Walsh copied substantial passages of his final paper to obtain his master’s degree in 2007 without proper attribution — threaten to derail the Democratic senator’s already-steep climb against Republican Rep. Steve Daines, who is leading in the polls. Montana had long been viewed as a long shot for Democrats in the national fight for control of the Senate, and the plagiarism allegations seemed to make a tough race even tougher.
Still, Democrats hoped that the uproar would soon die down, and Walsh could soon return to regular campaigning. They likened the scandal to the 2010 Connecticut Senate race, when it was revealed that Richard Blumenthal never served in Vietnam, contradicting his numerous assertions that he did, as well as the 2012 controversy over whether Elizabeth Warren improperly cited having Native American heritage to advance in her academic career. Warren and Blumenthal eventually won those races.
But those two races were in deep-blue states — not in red Montana, where President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular and where Walsh was only just appointed to the Senate seat in February to fill the vacancy of Max Baucus, now the U.S. ambassador to China. Republicans expressed new confidence in Daines’ chances following the Wednesday report — and some Democrats privately agreed.
“It’s over,” one senior Democratic Senate source said Thursday.
Walsh said little about the matter on Thursday and was elusive in the halls of the Capitol. TV cameras waited for him to return to his office in the Senate Hart Office Building — with little success. He presided over the Senate for more than an hour, during which Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) could be seen offering apparent encouragement to him. He avoided the throngs of assembled reporters by taking less-frequented routes. And he skipped a Thursday party lunch attended by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
Walsh, who rarely talks to reporters in the Capitol, did privately reach out to some of his Democratic colleagues, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who chairs the Agriculture Committee on which he serves, and Tester.
“He made a mistake. But the truth of the matter is I think he’s got an opponent who’s made a whole bunch of mistakes on his voting record,” Stabenow said in an interview.
“If you really bore down and look at it, it’s a 14-page paper, 96 footnotes,” Tester said. “He obviously screwed up — but I think it’s totally unintentional. … I just think that once people understand that there was no malice intended here, I think he’s going to be fine.”
But others knew little of the matter.
“All I know is what I read in the papers,” said Reid’s top deputy, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. “I’d like to hear his side of the story.”
The Wednesday report detailed extensive plagiarism in his 14-page master’s thesis at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, at least a quarter of which came directly from other authors without proper attribution. Walsh has said he didn’t think he committed plagiarism, but in other statements he admitted he did, adding that it was unintentional.
The War College has now launched an investigation into the allegations. In an email, a public affairs officer with the school said the senator has contacted officials there, an exchange confirmed by Walsh’s campaign.
“We have indicated to Sen. Walsh how he can contact the Army War College to offer information for consideration by an academic review board,” the officer said.
Walsh has also said that he had been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder at the time when he plagiarized the work, according to The Associated Press, noting that he is also taking anti-depressant medication.
Some Republicans scratched their heads at the explanation.
“How the hell do you attribute it to PTSD?” one senior Senate Republican said, asking for anonymity to speak candidly about a fellow senator.
In a four-page campaign memo released to reporters Thursday, the Walsh camp claimed that he was not citing his mental state and stress from war as an “excuse” for his plagiarism.
“[Walsh is] a great soldier, who learned war strategy on the battlefield firsthand but he’s not a classroom academic — the Senate already has plenty of those,” Walsh spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua says in a statement.
It’s too early to know whether voters will buy that argument, but Walsh so far has succeeded in keeping the party establishment in his corner.
“We’re behind Walsh all the way, and there was nothing intentional that he did,” said Schumer, a key player in his party’s midterm strategy.
“He’ll probably get over it,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, who faces a tough race in Alaska this year. “People should be more straightforward, he was. He gave the answer, he didn’t dodge it. Which I think was important.”
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