So I made a mistake.

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Personnel Is Policy on 2016 Campaigns

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Politicians should be responsible for the people who staff their campaigns, right? Yes. Now, let’s try to do it the right way.

Politico had a nice piece about recent problems that Republican presidential candidates have had with campaign staff, a few of whom have said politically inappropriate things, mostly on Twitter or other social media platforms. As Jonathan Topaz and Katie Glueck correctly point out, the notion that staff who misbehave and get caught also get fired is nothing new. What's new is that mid-level staffers now come with easily accessible public records, making mini-scandals about past actions or ill-considered statements easy pickings for reporters or opposition researchers from rival campaigns.

These flaps are a lot less important than they might seem to those caught up in the day-to-day tension of nomination battles. Yes, as a Ben Carson adviser tells Politico, vetting errors are almost inevitable given how many staff are hired and how quickly. Fortunately, no candidate will ever be destroyed by revelations about a communications consultant, chief technology officer or policy director (to cite three examples from Politico’s story). Those with long memories may recall a highly-publicized flap over an “attack video” that brought down Michael Dukakis’s campaign manager. It didn't, however, do serious harm to Dukakis himself; he went on to win the Democratic nomination in 1988.

Personnel is policy. A candidate’s campaign staff is a useful clue to how that candidate will govern, including which party groups he or she is close to, which policies the administration would likely embrace and which party factions may be frozen out. Of course, just because Scott Walker briefly hired a communications staffer who breaks with conservative orthodoxy on some social issue, that doesn't mean Walker’s policy statements are a sham. But generally, a candidate who listens, for example, to hawkish foreign policy advisers is likely to be a hawk if elected.

Which brings us to the role of the news media. It’s appropriate for reporters to treat staff as fair game. The best way to do that, however, is to downplay the occasional revelation of past social media misadventures, and instead focus on what staff hires tell us about group or factional allegiances, and what that means for future policy. If reporters get those stories right, then public scrutiny of staffers will actually leave observers better informed – especially during the invisible primary before voting begins, when it’s often difficult to follow the action.

  1. Of course, one way to look at this is as basic advice to people who want to advance their careers. Hey, would-be Karl Roves and James Carvilles: Don’t say stuff in public that will embarrass your future boss! 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net