The Consortium

Grand Old 'Oppo' Land

"Oppo" can be a noun, an adjective or even a verb. Though foreign to many voters, it is the modern way of playing the political game. The four-letter shorthand stands for "opposition research" and refers to the practice of digging into an opponent's past for information that can hurt him in a campaign.

At its best, "oppo" can uncover a serious flaw in an opposing candidate and alert the voters to information that would justifiably cause them to vote for someone else. "Oppo" also can be used defensively when a candidate hires a friendly team to dig into his own record, so he'll know what to expect when a race gets down and dirty. That's called a "vulnerability study," in the parlance of "oppo."

But more often than not, "oppo" has fed the ugliness and the cynicism of modern American politics. By exploiting massive computer databases, "oppo men" now can locate obscure quotes and other trivia to be yanked out of context and thrown at an unsuspecting candidate so that any normal person would have long forgotten what he had done or what the words meant.

The "oppo men" are expert, too, at prying into old divorce files or discovering that youthful indiscretion. They can locate embarrassing information not just about the opposing candidate, but about his family, too. "Oppo" can be spread by rumor or be slipped into the news columns of a friendly newspaper.

"Oppo" is most effective when the source is concealed. So the voter thinks it's from a neutral party, thus giving the derogatory information more credence. "Oppo" can be most devastating when it gets the voter to laugh at the target or when it drags the opponent down into the gutter.

At its most sophisticated levels, "oppo" even can resemble the tactics of the intelligence world where "psy-ops" or psychological operations are used to disorient or neutralize an enemy. Like a psy-op, an effective "oppo" can knock an opponent off-stride at a strategic moment and break the will of his supporters.

Often, the only ethical limits that an "oppo man" respects are those of effectiveness. Going too far and accidentally provoking sympathy for an opponent is the real sin.

But one result of this "oppo" trend is that many quality individuals won't run for public office out of fear that one mistake -- past or present -- could make them a national laughingstock. Others survive in this nasty world by building huge war chests and hiring even better "oppo men" than the other guy's got, a need that further drives politicians into the pockets of special interest money.

Perhaps, most destructive of all, in this Grand Old "Oppo" Land of American politics, it's getting harder all the time for the voters to know what information should be taken seriously, what's a real scandal, and what is just the product of one more slick "oppo."

Robert Parry, Editor of The Consortium

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