How Bad Was the McConnell Recording? Watergate Bad or Gestapo Bad?

Philip Bump
How Bad Was the McConnell Recording? Watergate Bad or Gestapo Bad?

Let it never be said that American national politics lacks a flair for exaggeration. After a recording of a strategy session at Senator Mitch McConnell's reelection campaign was released by Mother Jones magazine, the event was quickly analogized to whatever nefarious history was close at hand. It is almost as though political actors were hoping to score political points off of a relative non-event.

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The comparison: Watergate

What it was: A 1972 break-in at a Washington hotel targeting the Democratic campaign working to unseat President Nixon. The burglars intended to plant listening devices in the space.

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Who's making the reference:

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Brad Dayspring of the National Republican Senatorial Committee:

What's with the Watergate tactics? RT @justinbarasky: Secret tape: Mitch McConnell aides discuss Ashley Judd #kysen

— Brad Dayspring (@BDayspring) April 9, 2013

Glenn Thrush of Politico:

This really is like Watergate: If tape of McConnell aides trashing Judd came via illegal bug FBI needs to investigate…

— Glenn Thrush (@GlennThrush) April 9, 2013

Mitch McConnell himself:

McConnell did not reveal any other details about how he knows who was behind the secret taping. He did say the secret taping is “much like Nixon and Watergate.”

“That’s what the political left does these days,” he said.

How apt is it: While America always likes throwing a "-gate" on the end of any political uproar, this one prompted a lot of references to the full scandal itself. It doesn't fit. Watergate was an illegal burglary authorized by a sitting president. There's no indication that any break-in took place at McConnell's office, much less that Obama asked that it happen. (Should that be revealed, we will happily revise our assessment.)

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The comparison: Richard Nixon

What it was: The president of the United States who authorized the Watergate break-in. And who also secretly recorded visitors to the Oval Office and conversations held in the White House. Those tapes included conversations implicating Nixon in a conspiracy to cover up the Watergate break-in.

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Who's making the reference:

Mitch McConnell (see above).

How apt is it: Oddly, it would have been more apt if McConnell had known about the recording and confessed to criminal activity. He didn't. It's a weaker analogy than the Watergate one.

The comparison: The Gestapo

What it was: Nazi Germany's secret police.

Who's making the reference:

The manager of McConnell's Senate campaign:

“We’re very grateful that the FBI is very quick to address this…we’re going to make sure that this is prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This kind of stuff just has no place in a free society,” Jesse Benton, who suggested the private meeting had been illegally bugged, said on former GOP Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s radio program.

Benton continued: “This kind of stuff just has no place in a free society, governor. This is Gestapo kind of scare tactics. We’re not going to stand for it. Kentuckians shouldn’t stand for it and the American people regardless of their personal political persuasion should not stand for this.”

How apt is it: The Gestapo thing aside, it's not clear how this is a scare tactic. Who's meant to be scared? McConnell?

But, regardless: The Gestapo played a critical role in establishing a fear-based system of informing that led to rampant murder across occupied Europe. The kind of scare tactics the Gestapo used included kidnapping people and executing them. Leaking a recording of a meeting held in a Louisville office complex doesn't quite match up.

Even if there was a bug in the McConnell's campaign office, I would venture to say the Gestapo did far worse.

— Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) April 10, 2013

Special bonus comparison: Kim Jong Un

What it is: The dictatorial leader of the North Korean police state.

Who's making the reference:

David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy, in relation to McConnell's pledge to filibuster new gun legislation:

Kim Jong Un is no Mitch McConnell. Because Kim, even with his nuclear weapons, is hardly likely to launch an attack on Americans anywhere given that the response would produce the instant and certain obliteration of his regime. What that means is that for all his bluster, the chubby little autocrat is very unlikely to cost one American his life. But in vowing to block any vote on even the most modest legislation to rein in America's out-of-control gun culture, the Senate minority leader all but guarantees that the toll in America's street-corner war will continue to rise.

How apt is it: Senators can only dream of having dictatorial decision-making power.