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What Scott Walker's Email Scandal Shares With Chris Christie's Bridge Scandal: The Permanent Campaign

Scott Olson/Getty Images News

Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin and rising Republican star, did not shut down the access lanes to any bridge in retribution against a local Democratic official, as far as we know. (If one were to do so, what would be a good target? The Mississippi River Bridge in La Crosse? The Leo Frigo Bridge in Green Bay?) But what emerged in the reams of court documents and e-mails from his aides released Wednesday carries echoes of the Chris Christie operation in New Jersey that led us to the scandal over the malevolent closure of lanes onto the George Washington Bridge. And for that matter, it carries echoes of what has helped bring Capitol Hill to a standstill in Washington.

It’s the growing hegemony of the permanent campaign.

The documents and e-mails grew out of a longstanding criminal investigation into whether Milwaukee County government employees working under Walker when he was county executive were doing work for his 2010 campaign for governor on government time and with government resources. (There is also a second investigation underway into coordination between Walker's team and conservative groups outside the state who spent very heavily to defeat the attempted 2012 recall of the governor.) Walker’s former deputy chief of staff pleaded guilty in 2012 to felony misconduct and the released materials give further insight into just how extensive the overlap between government and campaign work was. As the New York Times summarizes:

The messages showed how actively Mr. Walker’s campaign coordinated with county workers in 2009 and 2010, when he was running for governor. They shared emails about the proper wording of campaign news releases. They exchanged emails on county time promoting a birthday fund-raising event for the campaign.

Some used private email accounts to communicate even, apparently, with Mr. Walker, according to an email from the county’s administrative director, who at one point advised a colleague to do the same, adding imprecisely, “Consider yourself now in the ‘inner circle.’” And plans for a daily conference call, the newly released emails show, included members from both his campaign for governor and his county executive staff.

In one message to campaign staffers and county executive workers, Mr. Walker’s chief of staff at the time, Thomas Nardelli, wrote that Mr. Walker wished to hold the 8 a.m. calls “to review events of the day or of a previous or future day, so we can better coordinate sound, timely responses, so we all know what the others are doing.”

Previously released documents, meanwhile, had shown that, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, Walker's aides “set up a secret wireless router in the county executive's office and traded emails that mixed county and campaign business on Gmail and Yahoo accounts.”

First of all, a fun side note: does this blurring of government and campaign e-mails and resources by an ambitious conservative politician holding local municipal office while running for statewide office in a northern clime ring a bell? Yes, it is exactly what Sarah Palin found herself accused of having done while she was mayor of Wasilla.

Second, a disclaimer: it’s important to put allegations of this sort of overlap in perspective. As I’ve argued in the past, drawing overly fine church-state distinctions between “government” and “policy” on the one hand and “politics” on the other is silly, because of course they are infused in each other and always have been. Elected officials who want to stay in office or rise to the next level are of course conscious at all times of how their decisions in office are shaping their future prospects.

Still, there is a point where savvy political awareness becomes an unhealthy, all-consuming fixation with the next election cycle, and it’s that line that it seems is being crossed increasingly often. In Wisconsin, the obsession meant having county government workers setting up a secret router for campaign-related emails and poring over campaign press releases, months and months before the county executive was on the ballot for governor. In New Jersey, we know now that it went far beyond that, to the governor’s “inter-governmental affairs” staff keeping track in color-coded dossiers which local official was endorsing the governor for reelection and which wasn’t, what each official’s town or county was or was not getting in state aid to help make the endorsement happen, and even breaking down localities as "Ohio" and "Florida"-style swing districts—all this starting many months before the November 2013 election. And, in one case, going so far as to instruct the governor’s liaison at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to wreak traffic Armageddon in the town of a mayor who was declining to endorse.

It’s easy to mock this sort of campaign-obsessed scheming by strivers in the provinces. But here’s the thing: is the mindset that drives it really all that different than the one that has brought Washington to its current standstill? Yes, much of the stasis on the Hill can be chalked up to the gridlock of divided government. But of late it’s gone beyond that. Immigration legislation is on hold, we are told, because Republicans—even those who believe immigration reform is in their party’s best interest—are worried about riling conservative base voters in an election year. Democrats who might normally be acceding to the White House’s desire for new trade deals are fretful about an intra-party rift on that issue in an election year. Most remarkably, the decision to put off these issues, and many others, because of an election more than eight months from now is being taken by many Beltway commentators as entirely rational—nay, to be expected. As The Washington Post put it earlier this week:

After a tumultuous week of party infighting and leadership stumbles, congressional Republicans are focused on calming their divided ranks in the months ahead, mostly by touting proposals that have wide backing within the GOP and shelving any big-ticket legislation for the rest of the year. Comprehensive immigration reform, tax reform, tweaks to the federal health-care law — bipartisan deals on each are probably dead in the water for the rest of this Congress…

GOP brass in both chambers have shifted their focus to stability, looking to avoid intraparty drama, rally behind incumbents and build Republicans’ ground game ahead of November’s midterm elections, where they hope to be competitive in a slew of Senate races and hold on to the party’s 17-seat House majority…

“It’s a natural progression,” said Republican Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman. “If you’re a Republican in Congress, you’ve learned that when we shut down the government, we lose. Now that we’ve had some success in avoiding another shutdown, our fortunes seem to be rising, so maybe we don’t want big things to happen.”

“Calming divided ranks.” “Fortunes seem to be rising.” OK…but to what end? To have a decent outcome in an election eight and a half months from now, maybe pick up some seats, so that the next Congress can take office in early 2015, and within a mere year, find itself back in…campaign season, calming its divided ranks and avoiding “big things”—in other words, actual legislation by actual government.

Remind me why we’re doing all this to begin with?

This mindset has been with us for a long time, but it’s creeping ever outward, further back into the calendar and further down into lower and lower levels of office. It’s bipartisan—we know, for one thing, that the Obama administration all but shut down the rule-making process in late 2011 and all of 2012 so as not to cause any election-year troubles for itself, a decision that likely contributed to the bungled Obamacare rollout.

But it’s not hard to imagine why the mindset seems to have taken particular hold among Republicans, whether on the Hill or in Trenton or suburban Milwaukee. If you’re in government but philosophically anti-government, it’s all the more natural to let the governing be set aside for the sport of the permanent campaign. It’s easier, the goals are clearer, and it’s more fun. Why worry about, say, the side effects of farming out your state Medicaid program to private HMOs when you could be installing a secret router, like some latter-day Nixon plumber? It’s the era of Al Davis government: Just win, baby.