New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s "Bridgegate" scandal and former U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates's new book have more in common than just their similar names and the fact that they consumed so much airtime last week. Both contain a cautionary tale about the potential dangers of something that has become common in American government these days -- the permanent campaign.
The term “the permanent campaign” was first coined by journalist and former aide to ex-President Bill Clinton, Sidney Blumenthal in his 1980 book of the same name. According to political columnist Joe Klein, Blumenthal was reflecting sentiments expressed by President Jimmy Carter's pollster Patrick Caddell who, in 1976, wrote, "it is my thesis [that] governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign."
In 2005, Klein wrote about the “perils of the permanent campaign.”
Based on what we have learned this week, the hazards of the perpetual campaign have not only intensified but they continue to place the public, our policies and some of the nations’ leading politicians at risk.
Consider Christie’s George Washington Bridge affair. What we know so far is that close senior aides to the governor, including his campaign manager Bill Stepien, ordered the lane closures to punish the Democratic mayor of the city of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, for not endorsing Christie during last years’ election. It is a clear-cut case of politics taking precedence over policy and governing. It is a more than unfortunate instance in which the win-at-any cost ethos so familiar on the campaign trail seeped into the governors’ mansion. The result is an unmitigated disaster not only for the public who were directly impacted, but for the governor, his administration and potentially his future political ambitions. In short, there were no winners here.
But as the already released excerpts from Gates' book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” suggest -- Christie is not alone. Gates charges that during his stint in the Obama White House political operatives were often and actively involved in foreign policy decision-making. “Everything,” Gates writes, “came across as politically calculated.”
While Gates's book focuses on foreign policy, there are numerous examples of political players in the Obama administration getting the better of the policy folks in the domestic arena as well. One key instance was in the build-up to the 2012 election when the win-at-any-cost mentality so consumed the White House that the president agreed to say something publicly that was not only wrong, but a flat-out falsehood. That statement -- “if you like your health care you can keep it” -- was not only arguably the biggest political lie of last year, but is reflective of the same win-at-any-cost culture that appears to have pervaded the New Jersey governor’s office.
In both cases, when politics gets the better of policy it is not only the public that loses out, but the politician and administration. We’ve seen this clearly in both the cases of Christie, who is reeling from Bridgegate, and Obama, whose personal approval ratings have still not recovered from the revelation that he lied about the Affordable Care Act.
And as much as we may hope these types of incidents are limited to Christie and Obama, they are not. There are numerous examples of the “permanent campaign mentality” impacting the ability of modern elected officials to govern, regardless of office or party. One of the most infamous and recent examples occurred during the presidential term George W. Bush. Very much like Obama, in the case of Bush, it was his own former Press Secretary, Scott McClellan, who made the accusation.
As “E.G.” blogs in The Economist, “the putative need for a permanent campaign” is “one of the greatest problems in American politics… it’s a mess.”
Nevertheless it has become the norm in part because of the amount of money it takes to run a campaign and the fact that our elections last longer than those in almost any other industrialized democracy. It is also a result of the fact that as political parties have become weaker, politicians are increasingly forced to campaign and govern on their own; they must build the structures necessary to compete, just as they must build the coalitions and public support necessary to push through their policies.
When you blur the lines between politics and policy, and the former dictates the later, it is a recipe for disaster not only for the public but elected officials as well. Given the way we run our elections and how we make policy, it is unlikely we will see the unfortunate creep of politics into policy-making change any time soon. Short of real structural and constitutional change, perhaps the most we can do is implore our elected officials and their political operatives to remember the lessons of Obama and Christie -- placing short term political interests over sound policy judgment may be tempting, but it is seldom a winning strategy. It not only threatens their ability to govern but their future political aspirations as well.
Jeanne Zaino, Ph.D., is professor political science at Iona College and campaign management at NYU-SCPS. You can follow her on twitter @jeannezaino