When Political Hacks Run Amok

Chris Christie's bridge scandal is a good example of what happens when political operatives try to govern.

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I feel bad for Gov. Chris Christie. Seriously, I do.

Yes, he sits atop the organization that engineered a traffic jam to punish his political opponents. Still, I'm sympathetic to his situation because I've watched something like this happen before – to me.

The stage was much, much smaller, and no one ultimately cared. Still, the genesis of the problem was the same: political hacks run amok. I now realize that many political operatives get involved in politics for the same reason that the rest of us watch football: because it's really fun when your team wins.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

In my case, I was running in a crowded congressional primary in 2009. About a month before the election, it transpired that two of my fellow candidates had once seriously dated one another. This came as a shock. Imagine finding out in the middle of the 2012 Republican primaries that Mitt Romney had carried on a serious relationship with Michele Bachmann. Is it relevant to the race? Of course not, but it's really hard not to think about. (You're thinking about Michele and Mitt right now, aren't you?)

Two young staffers then took it upon themselves to have a little fun with the situation. They called a local florist and ordered flowers sent from one of the candidates to the other. The card read, "I still love you."

It was funny and harmless – if you're 22, and if the country were not in the midst of a financial crisis, and if you view politics as an amusing end in itself rather than as a means for fixing health care or improving financial regulation.

I was not naïve to this electoral reality. I can recall the exact moment almost two decades earlier – political innocence lost – when I realized as a young gubernatorial staffer that many of my peers considered serving in office to be something that you do in order to facilitate winning more elections.

[Check out 2013: The Year in Cartoons.]

I was working as a speechwriter for the governor of Maine, a Republican. There was an issue pending in Congress that had some bearing on our state, so I called the office of one member of the Congressional delegation, also a Republican, to coordinate our efforts on this federal legislation.

I recall a young staff member saying, "Nothing is happening on that right now. Congress is debating a flag-burning amendment." All Washington business had grinded to a halt so that members of Congress could pontificate on the largely symbolic issue of whether or not burning the American flag should be a constitutionally protected form of free speech. (Then, as now, the number of actual non-accidental flag burnings was inconsequential.)

"Ugh," I sighed. "What a waste of time."

"Yeah," the congressional staffer replied, "but it's a huge winner for us."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

To be clear, by "us" he did not mean the people of Maine or the citizens of the United States. He meant the Republicans, who were getting a lot of airtime grandstanding against flag burning. The Democrats, who were standing on the side of free speech (along with the Supreme Court), were put in the uncomfortable position of having to defend burning the Stars and Stripes, which is like defending the rights of Guantanamo inmates. The law may be on your side, and history may ultimately judge you right, but it's not going to win you a lot of votes.

So this particular staffer was relishing a couple of days of symbolic debate over a wedge issue. And if things really went well, it might generate some good video footage of Democrats fraternizing with known flag burners.

None of this should be a surprise. Where do trusted aides typically come from? From winning campaigns. And how do you win campaigns? By shafting the other side. The cleverer you are at doing so, the better. Operatives who can engineer traffic jams in enemy territory during a campaign are not the people you fire; they are the people you promote.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on Chris Christie.]

The Democrats are no different than the Republicans on this score, and I have no reason to believe that Christie runs an administration that is more politically devious than most. If anything, he comes across as a guy who cares a lot about getting things done, regardless of whom he has to work with. (Obviously if he were found complicit in Trafficgate, that reputation would give way to something far more Nixonian.)

The problem is that governing is not like campaigning. Elections are ferocious battles designed to bankrupt, slander, humiliate and ultimately defeat our political opponents. Governing is about setting partisan differences aside in order to solve real problems.

Should we be terribly surprised when the people who engineer election victories find it difficult to turn off the campaign when the election is over (for now)?

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