Plagiarism Charges and the Vapidity of Campaign Website 'Plans'

Not one but two major candidates got in trouble this week for having "plans" on their websites that turned out to be cut and pasted from other sources. So how much of a sin is this? Should it affect anyone's vote? The answers are: not a very serious one, and no.

To catch you up: the first candidate to get caught was Monica Wehby, the Republican nominee for Senate in Oregon, whose health care "plan" turned out to come from a survey by Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, and whose economic "plan" was copied from the websites of other candidates. Then last night we learned that Mary Burke, the Democrat challenging Scott Walker for governor in Wisconsin, did the same thing. In both cases, the transgression was blamed on staffers who subsequently resigned (in a nice touch, the Burke campaign said it wasn't "plagiarism" because the staffer himself had written the plans he copied when he worked for those other candidates). Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski broke both these stories, and he deserves some kind of medal for having the stomach to actually read through enough of these things to figure out when there are repetitions (assuming, of course, that he wasn't just handed them by an opposition researcher).

Now prepare yourself for a shocking revelation: the "plans" that appear on a candidate's web site are not actually written by the candidate. I'm sorry to have to be the one to tell you this. The way it usually works is that at some point early on, the candidate has some discussions with staffers about what she thinks about policy, the staffers then put together a document setting out her broad principles on various issues, and before it goes live on the web site under the words "Candidate X's plan to get America moving," she reads it and says, "Yeah, this looks OK." If she's a real wonk she might suggest some edits.

So it isn't her fault if the staffers that she trusted took the easy way out in putting the plan together. And whatever anger anyone might feel should also be mitigated by the fact that nobody really cares what a candidate says about policy on her web site.

That isn't to say we don't want candidates going on the record and getting specific about policy. We do. But the idea that some freshman senator is going to show up in Washington with a "plan" to revive the American economy, the congressional leadership will say, "This looks fantastic—let's get it written into legislation," and then it'll be signed by the president? No. She has about as much chance of making that happen as she does of becoming the Nationals's third baseman next season in between subcommittee hearings.

Now, there are exceptions. A lot more care is put into the plans that presidential candidates put forward, and if an issue is critical enough, they can actually become the basis for legislation if the candidate wins. All the Democratic candidates in 2008 had detailed plans for health care reform, and with some minor differences they all reflected a broad policy consensus on the left that had developed over the prior couple of decades. With some significant differences (like the fact that he opposed an individual mandate during the campaign), the Affordable Care Act looks pretty similar what Barack Obama proposed then.

And because she's running for governor—an executive office where you can do things pretty quickly—Mary Burke's "plans," such as they are, are somewhat more important than those of someone running for Senate. That doesn't mean she committed an awful sin of commission; it's possible that when she read what her campaign manager presented her, it sounded like a real reflection of what she would like to do, and presumably if she knew it was cribbed from somewhere else she would have had the sense to order him to draw up something with original language.

But on the scandal-meter, this should rank really low, somewhere between, "Who Gives a Crap?" and "Are You Really Trying to Convince Me This Means Something?"