The responsibilities of a political operative

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Many people use the term “political operative” to refer to campaign managers, or those who work for the interests of a whole political party rather than one elected official. It applies in not only those situations, but also chiefs of staff, communication directors or other professionals that work with politicians long after election victory parties. One apt way to describe the primary responsibility of political operatives is to posit that they help ensure advancement of civil servants’ interests without selling short those of their constituency.

The intense environment of modern politics requires shrewdness and finesse to appropriately navigate. These are qualities all political operatives and consultants must possess. Also, whether assisting the mayor of a small town or plotting the agenda of a high-profile veteran U.S. senator, professionals in politics must always remain laser-focused on the bigger picture.

The required capacity for simultaneous broad vision and pragmatism, on both a macro and micro scale, may make the political operative profession an ideal choice for those considering enrolling in a Master of Public Administration online degree program.

Supervising message and image

In its official mission statement, the American Association of Political Consultants, an advocacy group for those in the field of political oversight and administration, sets what could be considered a credo for the profession: “We craft effective strategies and employ best practices so our clients win at the ballot box and in the halls of government.”

This statement illustrates the duality present for those who work alongside politicians in administrative and communications roles. During campaigns, a candidate’s message must be collapsible, in a sense—something that can be distilled and distributed across multiple mediums and appeal to the broadest group of potential voters. Renowned political strategist Frank Luntz elaborates on this point in “Win: The Key Principles to Take Your Business from Ordinary to Extraordinary”—one of several books he’s written either directly concerned with politics or using anecdotes from his time in that sphere: He emphasized the importance of understanding the socio-cultural mindset of a given population, and speaking in terms applicable to that way of thinking.

But once in office, politicians serve as surrogates for the regions they represent. Also, any broad and sweeping promises made on the campaign trail cannot be forgotten: Officials must, at the very least, show that they’re working to make their statements a reality, even when they encounter the red tape and realpolitik that can impede the implementation of idealistic policies. Political staffers will undertake the grunt work of communicating this progress to the public across TV, radio, and web channels. If skilled professionals in a legislator’s or executive’s office don’t control the narrative regarding this matter, voters can become disillusioned and not be counted upon for future re-election campaigns.

Valuing results above all

It can be easy for those working in politics as administrative staff, particularly those new to the profession, to become enamored with the trappings and status that accompany such careers and lose sight of the work that must be done. On the other end of the spectrum, people with history in the field can place too much importance on traditional ways of making policy deals, such as conducting polls, shaping an administration’s agenda, and other tasks. Taking either of the approaches noted above can cause problems.

In a 2012 profile of Matt Rhoades, longtime lead political strategist for former Massachusetts governor and two-time presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Politico pointed out the operative’s aptitude for shaping Romney’s message. Rhoades, in his work for Romney and previous jobs running point on communications for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and others, relied on meticulous analysis of polling data and other information. He worked overtime to ensure campaigns he ran and administrations whose messaging he oversaw didn’t operate on assumptions and anticipated eventualities others didn’t, such as questions of Roberts’ past that might come up in his Senate confirmation hearings. In these attributes and his insistence on keeping a low profile—he rarely spoke directly to the media—Rhoades’ work could serve as a blueprint for MPA students interested in political strategy to follow.

Ensuring the politician remains the focus

There’s no doubt that appearances loom large in politics. This reality can’t be avoided. The cult of personality is not a bad thing in all instances, but it can overwhelmingly dominate the conversation. Worse, it can eventually hamstring the actual nuts-and-bolts functioning of government long after the campaign has ended. Those entrenched in various political-operative positions would thus do well to avoid letting themselves fall into such a potential pitfall. As veteran political journalist Bryan Curtis pointed out in a piece for Slate, campaigns have at times provided a stage upon which campaign managers, political consultants, and other operators can showcase their varied personalities and idiosyncrasies.

The career arcs of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, who largely oversaw Bill Clinton’s successful first presidential campaign in 1992, serve as prominent examples of this phenomenon. These men featured prominently in a D.A. Pennebaker documentary about the 1992 presidential race, entitled “The War Room.” After that, Carville and Stephanopoulos still loomed large in American political discourse—the former as a frequent on-air pundit and columnist speaking loudly in support of Democratic talking points, the latter eventually taking the host’s role for politics-focused TV news program “This Week.”

However, by taking jobs outside the White House, neither man overshadowed Clinton’s presidency. When Carville assisted Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 2008, he also didn’t call attention to himself—aside from one memorable moment when he evoked Biblical traitor Judas Iscariot to describe Gov. Bill Richardson’s endorsement of Barack Obama to The New York Times.

By contrast, as early as 1999, Karl Rove—eventual chief strategist behind both campaigns of President George W. Bush—was the subject of newspaper profiles, such as one in the Dallas Observer, in which he appeared to relish the role of kingmaker. After joining the Bush administration as deputy chief of staff, Rove’s place at the center of several scandals, such as the outing of CIA case officer Valerie Plame, became one of many PR crises to bedevil the Bush presidency.

Modern political operatives are best off following the lead of someone like Stephanopoulos, whose quiet demeanor has reflected his relative disinterest in the spotlight. While individual charisma is valuable for staffers if they’re called upon as a media surrogate, their public appearances and other activities should never never distract from the politician or disgrace the office.

Maintaining high personal standards

Political analyst Matt K. Lewis, writing for The Week, pointed out a responsibility of political operatives that ties into staying out of the spotlight: Difficult as the job can be, professionals in this environment can’t take ethical dubious shortcuts for the sake of a campaign or an administration. Lewis illustrated this principle through the example of Mississippi political strategists who, alongside right-wing blogger Clayton Kelly, were arrested as conspirators in a plot involving criminal trespassing and other violations to discredit Sen. Thad Cochran in advance of a 2014 primary election.

Administrative staff must also not allow a politician’s moral failings to influence their own activities. Resigning a position is less dangerous than engaging in potentially criminal behavior at an official’s behest, because a skilled operative can almost always find new work.

Learn More

The School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University-Newark, provider of the online Master of Public Administration, is accredited by the NASPAA. Before a program becomes eligible for accreditation by the NASPAA, its parent school must be recognized by a regional, national or international agency. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is accredited by Middle States Commission on Higher Education and is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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