Jason Miner is even-keeled, fresh-faced and soft-spoken. Here he is talking about President Bush and the Republican White House: "I'm not a big hater. I don't doubt that everything they do is for what they believe are the best of intentions."
This guy is supposed to be a Democratic attack dog?
Miner has more bite once he gets going. He finishes his thought: "I also have a very, very passionate belief that the things they stand for are fundamentally flawed and need to be stopped. . . . There's an arrogance to them that suggests they believe they should not be accountable."
Over the past several years, probably no other person has devoted more waking hours to learning about Bush or dreaming of ways to make his life in the presidency more difficult than Miner, the 32-year-old research director for the Democratic National Committee. His staff of about 20 people culls public records, pores over transcripts and monitors news from across the country. The idea is to find any little-known fact, impolitic statement or policy contradiction that, with the right push, might lead to damaging news coverage for the White House.
Miner is one of those Washington operatives who exist in both parties -- people who are well-known to reporters and important players in shaping the news, even as most of the time they get little direct publicity.
"He's got a boy-next-door demeanor and the manners of a Boy Scout while he's dishing out the most damaging information," said Democratic consultant Jenny Backus, formerly of the DNC. "But he's effective because he knows what's legitimate news. He spins a story, he doesn't just splatter mud."
A decade or so ago, research operations tended to be smaller, and more insulated from other parts of a campaign or party structure -- "trolls who come out from under the rock every four years," as Backus puts it. These days, researchers such as Miner are much more integrated into daily political operations, working closely with communications experts as they try to promote stories in an increasingly frenetic news environment.
Miner came of age as this transition was underway. A native of Connecticut, he worked as an intern for Republican Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, his local legislator. He had to get references certifying he was a Democrat and not a spy when he later worked at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
After waiting tables for a time, he did research for Harvey Gantt's 1996 Senate campaign against GOP Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.). Gantt lost, though Miner did meet the woman he would later marry. In 1997, he moved to the DNC research wing, taking the top job in 2001.
The day starts with a 7:45 conference call, in which DNC aides try to craft a message for the next news cycle. To prepare, Miner has to stay up past midnight or get up by 6 a.m. to troll the Web for a half-dozen or more papers he follows daily.
In the modern media market, with Web sites and cable channels joining newspapers and TV networks, political news moves faster but can also get lost easily in the blur of a nonstop news cycle. The trick for operatives is to get stories helpful to their side placed in news outlets, and then keep the story going for several days.
When Bush was about to name a new "manufacturing czar" earlier this year to help restore jobs to that sector, Miner's researchers helped unearth facts about the Nebraska executive's record at his own company, which had laid off workers and opened a factory in China. But their hopes for an ongoing embarrassment faded; the White House scotched the planned appointment within hours of the first reports about the controversy.
Sometimes, the task of the research operation involves push-back. When Vice President Cheney lambasted Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) for voting to cut military spending, a check of the record showed that as secretary of defense a dozen years ago, Cheney had backed cuts to many of the same weapons systems.
Despite publicity successes, Miner and his operation are subject to considerable second-guessing -- from their own side. For years, there has been grumbling among Democrats that the party simply is not as good at harassing the opposition with negative news as Republicans were at tormenting President Bill Clinton. There are differences between then and now, Miner says. Independent counsel investigations and congressional committees with subpoena power drove a lot of anti-Clinton news, he says. But Democrats have little power as the minority in Congress. Also, there is an abundance of conservative radio talk shows and Web sites that overpower publicists for the liberal side.
Miner said he doubts there will ever be parity. He believes liberals do not favor the same formats and rambunctious style of argument as conservatives. But he believes effective opposition research from either side gets a fair hearing if the facts are sound.
"Things don't stick unless there is a nugget of truth in there," he said. "The best research is that which feeds into and helps build a narrative about a public figure. Otherwise you're just throwing stuff against the wall, and that doesn't work."
Early in the administration, the DNC began a "grand old petroleum" project to highlight the administration's ties to the oil industry. More recently, his research shop has put out a daily e-mail trying to publicize alleged inconsistencies or misstatements from the Bush White House. Co-opting a slogan and logo from Burger King, the e-mails are titled "Bush White House: Home of the Whopper" and promise "delicious dish" on alleged "lies, exaggerations, and distortions." The topics have ranged from serious, such as the Iraq war, to more trivial, including a blast at Bush's record as managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.
Workers in Miner's shop call themselves the "minions," a reference to a scolding the president's father, former president George H.W. Bush, gave in a 2000 interview, responding to Democratic critics of Cheney. "They've got a little old minion sitting there with their dark glasses, you know, digging up dirt . . . some little nerd sitting there in the Democratic National Committee."
But the minions are nearly as irreverent with Democrats. During the nomination battle, the minions lampooned all the candidates, including Kerry and his portentous speaking style. ("And so I ask, who among us would not enjoy a delicious Subway sandwich?") Now that Kerry is the de facto nominee, Miner has ordered the gang to knock it off. "They're like dogs -- they'll bite anyone, you just have to point them in the right direction," he said.
Meanwhile, Miner and at least some of his staff may soon be working directly for Kerry. There are discussions about moving much of the DNC research operation to the Kerry campaign, according to campaign aides. This would give Miner a new employer for the first time in seven years, even if his assignment remains essentially the same.
"I like finding information," he said, "and making connections with that information that no one else has made."