Kellyanne Conway, Robby Mook, Ron Nielson, Gloria Mattera, Joel Searby. We are the professional politicos who took lead roles with the top presidential campaigns this year. We gave it our all. Some of us probably made a lot of money. Some of us lost a lot. Two of us had a now infamously heated exchanged at Harvard (hint: I wasn’t invited.) We were all trying to beat the other’s team. Only one of us came out victorious. Such is the nature of political campaigning. It’s a winner-take-most sport, competitive to a level far beyond what I experienced when I played college sports. The stakes, after all, are very high. The professional politicos eat, sleep and breathe this stuff. It consumes our lives in those seasons, for better or for worse. We do and say things that, in the normal course of life, we would never do or say. Some awful things. Some heroic things.
We should call 2016 “the year of the advisors.” There were more stories this year about advisors and consultants, especially in the presidential campaigns, than I can ever remember in the past. Favorite punching bags were the lightning rods for each of the two major campaigns. How many stories did Politico write about Kellyanne, Robby, Paul Manafort, John Podesta, Huma Abedin and all the rest? (hint: a zillion - click their names) Why so much interest in this?
You might say its because of the palace intrigue of Washington, DC insiders – and you would be partially right. You might say it’s the influence of celebrity culture on the election process and a desire for fame by the advisors themselves – and you would be partially right. But I think there’s a deep truth at work here under it all: advisors are incredibly influential. They know it. The media knows it. I’ve lived it. We all know it. And another deep truth: we are influenced by the people we hang out with. How many times did you hear that from your parents?
It stands to reason, then, that the quality, integrity, wisdom and personality of one’s advisors should matter a lot.
Are we, as a professional political class, spending any time developing leaders who reflect timeless values that we all believe in? Who is the “next generation” of professional politicos? Who’s training and mentoring them? What are they being told is important to know? Is anyone even asking about their integrity, character, ethical standards or moral compass? And what about the current leaders in the space? Are we at all concerned about the industry? Is anyone thoughtfully considering how our entire profession is influencing the future of our country? I fear that nearly all of these questions are going unaddressed in any meaningful way. (I know there are some exceptions, but they are just that.)
As a member of the professional political class for 10 years now I’ve had the chance to see and interact with people at all levels all over the country. Just like any profession, the quality of work varies greatly – from people I’d let babysit my daughter and run my presidential campaign all the way to people who should never be allowed within typing distance of a campaign plan and some who should be in jail. None of us are perfect. I’ve made a LOT of mistakes on the professional side of politics. Some of us win more than we lose. Some people lose more than they win and yet stay gainfully employed and even get rich. There are people with master’s degrees in political fields and there are people who never went to college. The variety is really quite entertaining.
What troubles me, though, is what I see in the contrast between two culturally divergent ways of thinking about politics, and how one is dominating the other. The dominant “culture” in the professional political class is defined by proximity to power, making money, who you’ve worked for, your phone’s area code and winning at all costs. The other “culture” is defined by principles, passion, sacrifice and finding good people to work with. Many of us find ourselves with a foot in both camps depending on the day.
In the first “culture” you don’t matter unless you have certain relationships, have worked for certain people and live in a certain place. Most, but not all, of these folks have a 202 area code. Many consultants who live in other places get their google voice account set up with a 202 area code just so it appears they’re calling from DC. You know them. Maybe you are them. In this culture we fight and claw and compromise our values (if we are clear on them to begin with) because what matters is that we get close to power. The powerful will get us our next job and the powerful are closer to the money so I’m more likely to make more money. It's transactional.
The vast majority of the national political money flows through Washington, DC. So if I want to play in that space, I better live in DC (for the record, I don’t.) The political media is all based in Washington, DC or New York. If I want a media presence, I’ve got to be there. The best parties, where I can meet the powerful, influential people who will help me get to the next step are also there. So it stands to reason that if I’m a professional politico, or want to be one, that I better set up shop in DC.
I’ve watched over the past decade as the rise in the variety of vehicles for political action has grown dramatically. The problem with the rise in the number of ways to engage in politics is that it is WAY outpacing the quality, equipped, passionate men and women it takes to run and staff all these organizations. We put so little time and effort into the quality of our professional political class that it’s no wonder we have a talent gap. More troubling for me though, is that we are “raising” a political class that is neither equipped nor challenged to lead us in ways that will strengthen and unite our country.
We see the impact of this throughout our political discourse. The professional political class has at least as much, and possibly more influence on political discourse than anyone in the nation. We all contribute, for good or for ill, to the way we talk, the way we operate, the standards we keep, the people we promote and ultimately help to get elected.
Before those in the political class on the left cast blame on Trumpism, white America and money – and before those on the right demonize the mainstream media, the liberal activists and academia, maybe we should be introspective, asking questions like:
- How am I contributing to the toxic political environment in our nation?
- Should I adjust any of my practices or behaviors or speech?
- What am I doing to unite our country?
- Do I care more about money, power and my reputation than I do about others and our country?
Politicos, we need a revival. One of Webster’s definitions of revival is “a restoration of force, validity or effect.” We need a revival of character, integrity, and professionalism in politics that strengthens our system, restores validity and faith in the institutions we serve and gives hope to future generations.
Some will argue it’s never been there, so how could it be revived? I would say there’s always been some who treated their roles as paid advisors, organizers and political service providers as more than just making a buck or winning or defining the other side. Unfortunately, though, we are in an era where these folks are hard to find. I meet very few in DC or otherwise. There are some notable exceptions, but if you’ve spent much time really working in the DC culture, you know this is true.
We need leaders in the professional political class who can both win AND do it with honor, integrity, professionalism and kindness. Before you dismiss this as idealism, don’t confuse kindness for weakness. Real kindness is one of the strongest forces in humanity, especially when coupled with the truth and put into action. We can fight hard battles and be honest about our opponents in creative ways without demonizing them. We can make a great living without being dishonest. We can run incredible campaigns without compromising our most basic values.
As our country is torn apart by partisanship and a tone that I’ve never seen before, what will we do, politicos? Will we run to wherever the next buck is? Or will we choose projects, candidates and words wisely? If you’re a politico and you’re feeling this, join me in committing to a few basic principles. As a political professional:
- I will be honest and when I fail, I’ll admit it.
- I won’t demonize others when I or my clients disagree with them.
- I will do excellent work that is worth the price tag.
- I won’t compromise my values for a buck.
- I will intentionally develop friendships with people from the “other side.”
- I will keep learning and improving on my craft.
- I will seek to build others up in the business, passing on the lessons of my wins and my losses.
We can’t all be Kellyanne or Robby or John or Paul. But we can all do our part to unite our country, to heal the divide and to contribute positively to a healthy, vibrant political discourse.