Yes, The Political Opinions Of Staffers Do Matter

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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In the wake of the Liz Mair affair, it has become popular to suggest that politicians shouldn’t care one iota what positions their staffers hold.

This, I think, would be the wrong lesson to “learn.”

Now, in fairness to Mair, it probably doesn’t matter what political positions are held by a well-liked campaign consultant, hired to coordinate with New Media bloggers and journalists during a campaign. Campaigning is different from governing (though often staffers are promoted from the former to the latter), and process is different from policy (though, again, there is overlap). And, as I’ve noted before, Mair is highly competent and effective at her job.

The danger is that it is now conventional wisdom that the positions of staffers are, somehow, off limits and irrelevant. I’ve seen this subtly suggested a lot lately — most recently by Michael Brendan Dougherty, who, writing at The Week (where I also contribute) praises Jeb Bush for realizing “that adults won’t confuse the positions of one of his hires with his own.”

Now, consider this rather persuasive opposing viewpoint from conservative leader Morton Blackwell:

Personnel is policy. If you pick staff who genuinely share your policy priorities, you’re likely to achieve much of your agenda in office. If not, you probably won’t be able to do very many of the important things you now hope to do.

The people you hire necessarily must make decisions. If you could make all decisions for them, you would not need to hire them. As my grandmother often said, “Why keep a dog if you’re going to bark yourself?”

Instructing people who don’t share your beliefs to make decisions based on your beliefs doesn’t work very well. Sometimes it causes disasters.

In a subordinate, principles without competence can be dangerous and certainly is ineffective for you. But competence without principles can be deadly. Hire people whose loyalty to you is based on your principles, not on your ability to advance their careers.

Conservatives make a great mistake if they think:

I’m as conservative as one can be and still be responsible. Anyone to the right of me is to that extent irresponsible. So I’ll hire only people who exactly share my philosophy and those who are to the left of me.

If you base your hiring on that thinking, you’ll inevitably be dragged to the left by your staff. You’ll undermine your political base. And you’ll fail to do most of what you now hope to do.

Again, this is not to suggest that every staffer must personally share all the views of her boss. It’s wise to surround yourself with some opposing viewpoints. And nobody wants to live in a world where crusades are launched to “out” the RINOs in our midst — and where every campaign aide is subjected to the kind of vetting once reserved for presidential running mates.

Nor is this to suggest that campaign operatives should be held to the same standards as a policy adviser or administration staffer (Blackwell’s quote is specifically “Advice to a Just-Elected Conservative Friend”).

But it is to suggest that the political positions of staffers can and should matter to conservatives — if they actually hope the men and women they elect will govern conservatively.

Writers value intellectual freedom over conformity and discipline, so it’s probably not a surprise most are repelled by the idea that a professional staffer’s opinion could be held against her (or the candidate). Moreover, unlike the good folks of Iowa and Wisconsin, most writers weighing in live in the DC area, and have a personal relationship with Mair. Unlike the good folks of Iowa and Wisconsin, we know and trust her. As such, it’s probably no surprise that the vast majority of writers — even very conservative ones — have decidedly come down on Team Liz. And that’s OK.

But let’s not take this isolated incident and use it to argue that advisers are nothing more than hired guns whose positions don’t ultimately impact policy decisions. Because, quite often, they do.

Matt K. Lewis