Sen. John Walsh, and how not to respond to a political scandal

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Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., right, and his son, Michael, leave the Old Senate Chamber after a swearing-in ceremony with Vice President Biden on Feb. 11.  (Lauren Victoria Burke/AP)

Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) is in trouble. Well, he was in trouble (electorally speaking), then he got into a lot of trouble (ethically speaking). And now he's making it worse.

It's been about 24 hours since the New York Times's Jonathan Martin broke the story about Walsh's pretty apparent plagiarism in a 14-page paper Walsh wrote for his master's degree in 2007. By Thursday afternoon, Walsh's campaign sent out a "fact sheet" laying out its side of things.

It begins:

Senator Walsh included 96 citations for a 14-page paper at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He acknowledges the citations were not all done correctly, but that it was an unintentional mistake.

This is the main argument from the Walsh campaign. When confronted with the allegations by the Times, Walsh said he didn't do anything wrong (“I don’t believe I did [plagiarize], no”). Now his team is kinda, sorta admitting he did something wrong, but saying it was "unintentional" and just a few missing citations.

Except that Walsh doesn't have a citation problem; he has a plagiarism problem.

As Martin's story and the accompanying graphics show, Walsh didn't just fail to cite things, he basically lifted whole blocks of text from other sources -- without using those pesky quotation marks. Even if Walsh had correctly cited the works where these words came from, it's still plagiarism if you pretend like you wrote those sentences. This is a far worse academic sin than a few missing footnotes.

It also takes a pretty big suspension of disbelief to think that Walsh lifted those passages without ill intent. Proving someone's intent is always difficult, but believing that this was anything other than an attempt to cheat takes some logical leaps that are pretty hard to make.

(Update 7:02 p.m.: Some smart folks make the very credible case that, if Walsh were to admit to deliberately plagiarizing, he could open himself up to worse fates than losing an election -- including discipline from the Army War College or the military. This is a fair point. We would argue, though, that even in the absence of a confession, the evidence is pretty overwhelming for anybody investigating the matter.)

A little further down the "fact sheet," Walsh's campaign says this:

While commanding the 1-163rd Infantry Battalion in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, Walsh survived hundreds of IED explosions while in a Humvee, he was targeted – by name – by Al Qaeda in Iraq, and his unit endured hundreds of rocket attacks.

If surviving "hundreds of IED explosions" sounds unbelievable, that's because it didn't happen. Walsh's campaign followed up with a correction (which they call a clarification), noting that he personally didn't survive all those IED attacks.

"He survived an attack in October 2005, while his unit endured hundreds of both IED and rocket attacks throughout the deployment," a Walsh spokeswoman said.

That's a pretty glaring factual error, especially for a "fact sheet."

The next sentence:

Senator Walsh told the Associated Press on Wednesday that he was dealing with the consequences of the difficult circumstances he faced in Iraq, but he did not suggest that these circumstances were an excuse for incorrect citations in a research paper.

Specifically, Walsh told AP he was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from Iraq and dealing with the suicide of someone he served with. Previously, the campaign mentioned the suicide but claimed (apparently in error) that he had not undergone treatment for PTSD.

Now his campaign says these things, which were brought up with multiple reporters, weren't intended as excuses. But if these minor details are apropos of nothing, why did they feel the need to mention them? Again, a big suspension of disbelief is required.

The next sentence:

It’s telling that this story emerges as polls show this race tightening – including one poll released the day this story was published that finds Senator Walsh down by only 4 points.

This is a pretty standard strategy: Suggest the opposition research was intended to stop your surging campaign. Dirty, desperate tricks! But the poll that the Walsh campaign cites here was conducted by Gravis Marketing, an automated pollster whose methodology is only slightly better than its grasp of the English language and punctuation. Samples here and here. ("In the horserace question between the two candidates the Republican challenger Nan Hayworth lead with 44% of the vote followed by Congressman Sean Maloney at 40% of the vote and 16% were undecided.")

Mostly, though, Walsh's big problem is that his campaign insists on making this out to be an "unintentional mistake."

On stuff like this, the temptation is almost always to try and explain it away, when the better course is to admit what you did was wrong and hope it's a one-day story, quickly forgotten by voters and journalists alike. And that's often what happens.

This is no longer a one-day story. And the Walsh campaign is making sure it will last even longer.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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