Just How Bad Was Democratic Senator John Walsh’s Plagiarism? This Bad.

Montana senator John Walsh announced yesterday that he would not seek reelection for his senate seat, owing to a brewing scandal over allegations that Walsh plagiarized portions of his master’s thesis. But is a bit of copying here or there really embarrassing enough to require dropping out from a Senate race? Yes. In fact, Walsh’s alleged copying is probably worse than you would think.

Walsh was appointed to the Senate six months ago by Montana Governor Steve Bullock, replacing Max Baucus, whom President Obama named as the U.S. Ambassador to China. Walsh, an Iraq war veteran, former lieutenant governor of Montana, and graduate of the U.S. Army War College, has just the sort of bona fides that Democrats like in a candidate for national office. Those credentials, though, proved to be his downfall.

Thursday brought an announcement from Walsh that he would not seek reelection this fall, saying that the allegations of plagiarism were “a distraction from the debate [constituents] expect and deserve.” Instead of seeking reelection, Walsh will “focus on fulfilling the responsibility entrusted to me as your U.S. Senator.”

Translation: This is ugly, it will only get uglier, and it’s best if this isn’t sussed out in the course of a publicized election.

So how bad was Walsh’s alleged plagiarism? Late last month, The New York Times secured a copy of Walsh’s master’s thesis, entitled “The Case for Democracy as a Long Term National Strategy.” At least a quarter of that paper, the Times contends, was lifted from other authors’ works, with no attribution. In other sections of the paper, Walsh cites other works but appears to have pretty much copy-pasted directly from them.

It’s the sort of thing that is best explained with a graphical representation.

Walsh plagiarism
John Walsh has dropped out of the race for Montana's Senate seat after reports emerged that he had lifted significant portions of his master's thesis from other authors' work. Image via The New York Times. See, attribution is easy!

Those are the first five pages from Walsh’s master’s thesis, with highlighting by The New York Times. The salmon highlights indicate passages taken without attribution — parts where Walsh apparently directly lifted text without crediting the author — while the goldenrod highlights indicate passages with improper attribution, where Walsh credited the author but used their language as though it was his own.

Notice anything about the color distribution? Yeah, pretty much the only non-highlighted portions are the borders of each page. Also the title. So there’s that.

Asked directly last month if he had plagiarized, Walsh claimed both ignorance and innocence.

“I didn’t do anything intentional here,” Walsh said at the time. He then went on to say that he did not recall using the sources he is accused of lifting from. “I don’t believe I did, no,” Walsh said when asked if he had plagiarized.

Walsh’s campaign quickly backed off of that explanation, though, when confronted with the evidence. The next day, an aide to Walsh gave no pushback against the plagiarism charge, pointing instead to Walsh’s celebrated career.

The reasoning goes that, in 2007, Walsh was dealing with a lot of stress, from finishing his master’s thesis to coping with his time in Iraq. A member of Walsh’s unit from Iraq had killed himself in 2007, just weeks before Walsh’s thesis was due. All of this, it turns out, is enough to drive a man to directly copying from articles on the internet.

Senate makeup
John Walsh is part of a delicate majority that Democrats retain in the Senate. His departure will make it harder for Democrats to retain that majority. Image via Wikipedia. No, really, attribution is quite easy.

Or, well, it would be, if Walsh hadn’t come forward later and contradicted the aide. According to Walsh, he was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder when the alleged plagiarism occurred. Walsh also says he was taking antidepressant medication. The soon-to-be former senator has said that he will consider apologizing to the scholars whose work he allegedly copied.

Those authors might forgive Walsh, but he may find it harder to gain forgiveness from the Democratic party. Walsh dropping out means that the Democrats will now have to scramble to fill the candidate vacancy he leaves. As Talking Points Memo notes, this tricky situation comes after Democrats bent over backwards to get Walsh comfortable in his seat. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reportedly elbowed other candidates out of Walsh’s way to get him appointed to the Senate, and now Walsh is dropping out of the race with just months to go before the election.

Democrats have until August 20 to pick a new candidate for the Senate, and that candidate will likely come into a toughly contested race. Walsh was already trailing his Republican opponent, Rep. Steve Daines, in polls. His disgraceful exit from the race will likely do no favors for whoever the new Democratic candidate turns out to be.