Why The Mary Burke "Plagiarism" Story Matters

Mary Burke Jobs Plan

Andrew Kaczynski at Buzzfeed has a detailed analysis of how Wisconsin’s Democratic candidate for governor, Mary Burke, “plagiarized” the “jobs plan” on her website from three prior Democratic gubernatorial candidates. As Moe Lane noted earlier today, the really hilarious part of this story is that two of these three candidates lost, and the third won in blue Delaware in 2008. But there’s another reason why this story is so bad for Burke.


Now, Kaczynski has made something of a cottage industry out of investigating candidate websites and finding that they recycle text from other candidates, use stock photos from out of state, and are otherwise prefabricated products with little original or organic content. Brian Beutler at the New Republic thinks this is bunk:

[Burke is] guilty of sharing a campaign consultant with other Democrats in her state. And—like every major political candidate in America—she’s guilty of checking the “I have a platform” box by posting partisan boilerplate on to a website that almost nobody reads. But that doesn’t make Burke a plagiarist.

…It’s an instance of lazy p.r. tradecraft, and the consultant who “plagiarized” his own talking points has been fired for it….Obviously it wouldn’t be OK for a journalist to do the same thing. But journalists should be able to recognize the differences between their own professional obligations and those of the politicians they cover.

In general, I agree with Beutler on this – plagiarism is a serious offense for writers, including for politicians when they write, but when a politician publishes a campaign website, you should not really be surprised to find material prepared by consultants who re-use the same stuff. A lot of Kaczynski’s articles in this vein are amusing but not really all that consequential.

But here’s the thing: Mary Burke really, really wanted voters to think her “jobs plan” was an important reason to distinguish her from her opponent, Scott Walker, and she ought to pay a price for that. Here’s the tune Burke was singing back in March:


Democratic Gubernatorial challenger, Mary Burke released her 5 point plan today to create jobs….“I brought Gov. Walker’s plan from 2010. This is 4 pages. I’ve seen 8th grade term papers that had more work put into them,” Burke told an audience at Marquette University.

And more – watch Burke elaborate on this theme:

I’ve read through a lot of economic development plans in putting together this plan and none of them were four pages long. We’re talking about a state’s economy, we’re talking about our future and it deserves some serious thinking and some real detail and some real plans. So, yes and setting goals, making sure you have plans to achieve those goals, and that you have the benchmarks for knowing if you’re on track.

You see what she’s doing here – Burke is on the Madison school board, and Walker (as is well known) is a college dropout. She’s sending a none-too-subtle message that Walker isn’t that smart and doesn’t do his homework, and she’s not like that.

The RNC’s oppo research shop has put together more examples of this sort of thing, noting that Burke in August touted “my jobs plan, Invest for Success, which is based on my experience in the private sector,” and that “Burke has made the jobs plan the centerpiece of her campaign. She has handed out printed copies of the plan to voters during her appearances across the state.”

In other words, Burke isn’t just recycling boilerplate on her website – she’s spent months running around the state telling the voters that they should read her jobs plan because it’s proof that she’s smarter, more detail-oriented, and more qualified by private sector experience to help Wisconsin’s economy grow,. She has been actively touting the plan and circulating copies rather than just letting it lie fallow in a forgotten “Issues” section of a website. That’s a much bigger deal, and voters who may have warmed to Burke’s sales pitch on how much work she put into the plan should reconsider their assessments now that she had blamed the whole thing on an outside consultant who sold her a plan that already went down to defeat with gubernatorial candidates in Indiana and Tennessee.



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