Late one evening in September, I opened my locker at the gym and was surprised to find my phone ringing. I was about to become collateral damage in today’s take-no-prisoners political culture.
BuzzFeed was reporting that the “jobs plan” of the Democratic nominee in the Wisconsin governor’s race, Mary Burke, contained slightly revised portions of position papers I had overseen for candidates in other states. My staff and I had been responsible for writing most of Burke’s paper, as well. Three of Burke’s top campaign advisers politely asked my thoughts on dealing with this accusation, but, with no time to investigate what had happened and how, I knew instantly that they would—and recommended, under the generally accepted rules of politics, that they should—blame and publicly fire the consultant who provided the contested language: me. And, in respect to the candidate, through the ensuing weeks of attacks and finger-pointing, I agreed to remain silent.
Pundits and ethics experts were asked to dissect in detail whether Burke could fairly be accused of “plagiarism” for relying on my work, and whether I could plagiarize myself. The accusations were predictably dismissed by experts, but, just as predictably, not by the partisans. In fact, such allegations are remarkably common: That same week alone, two Senate candidates faced the same charge, while a gubernatorial candidate in another state actually was accused of plagiarizing from Burke! That reflects the hypocrisy of it all: Critics on both sides of the aisle who claim to be shocked, shocked, that a candidate would adopt issue positions that come from someone else all do the same themselves.
Take, for instance, Burke’s opponent, Governor Scott Walker, who was reelected Tuesday. Just the week before, Walker had released his own “plan” for the next four years. His proposals consisted largely of pablum so generic (“Remove barriers to starting a new company and expanding a small business”) that there isn’t a living American who would oppose them—or naively believe that Walker originated or wrote them himself. Walker’s most widely touted promise, largely because it was a rare specific proposal, was to drug-test recipients of public benefits. The idea has been around for 30 years. And that’s the rule in politics, not the exception—which suggests the real issue underlying this controversy: how our politics have constricted our policies.
Mary Burke is a lifelong businesswoman, not a politician. Because she lacked a lengthy political record, her opposition spent a good deal of time attacking her for not “having a plan” until she issued the obligatory document. It was to be expected, however, that whatever she released would be subjected to merciless and unfair attack, because that’s how we conduct campaigns nowadays. Burke faced the competing demands of putting together a “plan” as quickly as possible and making it as perfect as possible. That’s where I came in.
Twenty years ago, I became a gubernatorial chief of staff when the politician for whom I worked suddenly succeeded to the governorship for six months. Later I started a consulting firm to continue doing what I had liked about being chief of staff: policy and the strategy around effectuating it. While we’ve worked primarily with Democrats, we have also served three Republican governors, including two likely 2016 GOP presidential candidates.
Besides developing initiatives in a wide range of areas for state and local governments in a majority of states across the country—or, more accurately, in large part because of that knowledge—my firm also has been hired to provide public-policy advice to people running for office: roughly 75 gubernatorial candidates in almost every state, a dozen U.S. Senate campaigns, mayoral and city-council candidates, and two presidential campaigns.
I found Mary Burke to be as knowledgeable of policy issues, as possessed of her own detailed views on the subject, and as personally engaged in shaping her platform as almost any candidate with whom I’ve worked. She started with a clear conception of how the economy functions and what she felt state government should and shouldn’t do to address it. She had read widely and talked with a cross-section of policy experts and concerned citizens. Our job became simply filling in the background facts and details—with virtually every passage, at Burke’s insistence, heavily footnoted.
Reading the subsequent coverage of what occurred, you’d get the impression that my staff and I lazily cut-and-pasted our way through the project. In fact, the Burke jobs plan went through at least a dozen drafts and near-endless rewrites. Two of us worked nearly full-time—which for us meant 16 hours a day, seven days a week—for several weeks researching and writing the position paper. Practically every line in the paper involved extensive research. As background for four sentences on Wisconsin's water industry, I read studies by its Water Council, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Harvard Business School; in response to a question from the candidate about the transferability of community-college credits, we located the University of Wisconsin’s internal policy document on the subject.
We knew better than simply to mail in work we’d completed elsewhere, acutely aware of the kind of cheap shots a candidate would incur if we did. So here’s what was allegedly “plagiarized”: The passages at issue constitute, altogether, perhaps three out of 50, single-spaced pages. Of these, the overwhelming majority rephrased research reports whose original versions and sources were fully footnoted—a fact left out of the BuzzFeed account. (For comparison, Connecticut gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley copied large sections of his plan verbatim from a think-tank report, without citation or attribution, which his fellow Republican, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—who traveled to Wisconsin to criticize Burke—found perfectly acceptable.)
As the process neared its end—with the document needing to be completed within hours to go to print—Burke was still suggesting additional issues she wanted to address. Some, such as best practices in agricultural-land preservation, required new research, but for many we had a research compendium close at hand: our own prior work for candidates and governments. Yes, we sometimes rely for substance on ideas we and others have previously suggested—after all, we are hired to know successful policy options, not to learn them on the fly. But, just as obviously, we extensively rewrite our prior work to avoid any suggestion of impropriety. The campaign itself similarly checked for any problems and together we developed newly rewritten passages.
I don’t know how these were not included in the final printed document. The Burke campaign was perhaps the most efficient and detail-oriented with which I’ve ever worked. All document edits had been maintained in track-changes mode, because the campaign wanted to ensure that every policy change or edit Burke directed was made. By the time we finished, the paper resembled the Tokyo subway map. In the heat of the final changes, someone obviously didn’t incorporate the proper text. That’s politics. However it occurred, I’ll take the blame, because my work ultimately failed my client.
Hardly any commentator, however, has spilled any ink examining whether the substance of the proposals are good or bad. The only question has been whether or not it’s proper to use wording similar to that of a prior campaign. But was there anything wrong with giving Mary Burke policy specifics that others had proposed, and even implemented, before she had? Not when that’s exactly why politicians hire people like us.
When I started providing policy guidance to politicians, officeholders were eager to develop and champion ”new ideas” that could serve as their historical legacy. Not anymore. Today, politicians and their advisers are deathly afraid of untested ideas that might cost them the next election. We developed an internal slogan: “Every politician wants to be the seventh to do something.” In a relentlessly negative political environment where the slightest misstep is hammered with attack ads, there is little value in taking a risk on leadership.
Every now and then, there’s a challenge that requires a new and creative answer—like the bipartisan education reforms we helped catalyze in West Virginia, or the brownfields legislation that we designed to break a legislative stalemate in California, described in a leading national environmental publication as “novel,” “precedent-setting” and “unique.” But most of what voters want to hear about are the same from one campaign to another—job creation, better schools, cheaper but higher-quality health care, more effective but less costly government—and there are proven approaches to most of these. The contention leveled at Burke that no responsible gubernatorial candidate would use proven ideas from elsewhere rather than thinking up all new solutions on his or her own is the precise opposite of both reality and sanity. So, in fact, policy proposals are going to be mostly the same in every campaign, and, with some minor local variation, in every state. It’s just a matter of whether you draw those “best practices” from the red grab-bag or the blue one.
That’s perhaps the greatest problem with our politics today: It’s either-or.
I’m a lifelong Democrat, but I think Republicans have plenty of worthwhile perspective—nothing has done more to convince me that conservatives are right about the inefficiencies of governments than a quarter-century spent working with governments. Republican Governor Tom Ridge appointed me to a statewide commission and I worked closely on a bi-state authority with New Jersey Republicans to defeat questionable spending by my fellow Pennsylvania Democrats. I’ve probably been about as critical of Democrats as Republicans in my journalistic work. Even Breitbart once called me both “liberal” and “honest.”
Where I would differ from the extreme and reflexive anti-government rhetoric of Republicans today is in recognizing that societies will continue to need “governance” of all kinds, and the question is not necessarily how to make them work least, but rather how to make them work best. Usually, however, the answer falls somewhere other than the two, in my view outdated, poles staked out by each of our parties. For instance, many debates—whether on crime, or welfare, or other forms of behavior regulation—spin pointlessly around a “conservative” position calling for punishment and a “liberal” one advocating “help,” when the research in virtually all fields shows that a combination of carrots and sticks is usually required for any policy to work: One without the other is generally ineffectual and counterproductive.
Or take the charter-school controversy. There is evidence that supports both sides’ positions: Public schools need to face competition. But so do charters, which are often insulated from the pressures, such as performance testing, to which their proponents want to subject the public schools. Both parties’ approaches to charter and public schools are fundamentally flawed and need to be rethought. The same is true, in my view, on issues from Social Security privatization to health-care reform.
But try saying any of that during a campaign.
The day that the story of the copying incident broke, I received a call from one of the country’s leading Democratic media consultants. He wanted me to know that he understood how these things happen in campaigns, he felt badly for the hail of bad publicity I would endure, and he wanted to continue to use me in helping his candidates. He called back a few hours later: He had a new candidate he wanted me to begin advising that very day. He launched into a detailed description of the campaign he envisioned, mentioning another campaign we had recently worked on together, built around the premise that the candidate was a font of innovative ideas. “I want you to take all the same positions,” he concluded, and just tailor them where necessary to the new location.
I was shocked. Shocked.