A Gresham’s Law of Politics dominates public policy debate. Pre-tested slogans, bogus research studies, deceptively named lobbying organizations, campaign ads that portray war heroes as terrorists – all these and more — flood the so-called market place of ideas, crowding out serious discussion. The lies and distortions are refined and amplified by increasingly sophisticated social science methods and technology. Because politics has become such a highly specialized, capital-intensive activity, the political managers who organize the lobbying and electoral campaigns, the operatives who develop the fraudulent messages, and those who finance them are among its most important players.

Clients bear responsibility for what is said and done in their names, but increasingly the candidate is merely the medium through which the message is delivered. The operatives think of themselves as professionals, but the defining characteristics of a profession aren’t simply the mastery of a body of knowledge and the acquisition of technical skill; there must be recognition of obligations that transcend self-interest and there must be sanctions for failing to meet those obligations. For the operatives, there are no meaningful sanctions; the measure of one’s stature is winning or losing.

Karl Rove is a good example. Notwithstanding the ethical lapses that have marked his career from its beginning, Rove is lauded as a genius by the media and even by his Democratic counterparts. After leaving the Bush White House, he moved seamlessly to the mainstream media, writing regular columns for the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. In the self-congratulatory culture of politics, including some who cover it and teach it, Rove is the gold standard.

We want to raise the stakes for bad political behavior. In much the same way that accountants and lawyers are constrained in what they can do for those who employ them, we want political managers to think “I can’t do this.” But politics is an unlicensed activity. The question, therefore, is whether any sanctions can be imposed for bad behavior. What is it that the political manager is likely to fear?

A Potential Solution: Financial Loss and Shame

Nobody wants to live, or at least be seen as living, an ignoble life. Thus, the operatives who produced the Willie Horton ad didn’t proudly proclaim their authorship. But shame isn’t enough. If candidates and clients shy away from hiring sharp practitioners, the practitioners will get the message.  Terry Nelson’s loss of Wal-Mart as a client following the infamous Harold Ford, Jr. attack ad is a case in point.

We will focus on the political operatives, but those who employ them should also come under heightened scrutiny. Thus, we hope to persuade our readers to forward our stories to potential clients and candidates, and we will report the results. Hopefully, momentum will build.

A final word. We will be scrupulously bipartisan. As it happens, today’s national Republican Party seems committed to extreme forms of propaganda and dirty tricks. But we know of Democratic operatives at every level of government whose tactics are equally pernicious. We will profile them as well.

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