Political Allies Don’t Always Sing in Tune

By Richard A. Lee

In a symphony orchestra, each musician has a specific role, but as a group they work in unison toward a common goal – to make beautiful music. If just one member of the orchestra decides to do things differently, the results can be disastrous.

The dynamics of symphony orchestras come to mind because of two recent events in which political allies appear to be singing from different song sheets.

The first of these took place on Thursday at a Congressional hearing on deferred prosecution agreements. For New Jersey Democrats, the session conducted by the Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law provided an opportunity to score political points because the star witness was GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie and the agenda included questions regarding deferred prosecution agreements that took place while he was the state’s U.S. Attorney.

Not surprisingly, Republicans charged that the hearing was politically motivated (Christie labeled the session a political circus after he finished his testimony). Meanwhile, Democrats argued that the hearing was needed to determine whether deferred prosecution agreements require additional oversight, as proposed in legislation co-authored by two Democratic New Jersey congressmen. That’s not a bad argument – unless someone from your own party starts singing from a different song sheet.

And that’s more or less what happened when a member of the Obama Administration testified that deferred prosecution agreements – in their current form — have been an effective part of the federal government’s efforts to combat corporate fraud. He also warned that the proposed legislation would weaken those efforts. “The bill would impede the government’s enforcement efforts against corporate and financial frauds by limiting our discretion in appropriately prosecuting cases,” Gary Grindler, a deputy assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice, told the committee.

Grindler is a seasoned attorney who supervises the Justice Department’s enforcement of anti-fraud laws, so his comments should not be taken lightly.  But in the context of New Jersey’s gubernatorial election, his testimony was ill-timed for Democrats, and Christie seized the opportunity quickly. “I agree with the Obama Administration, who think that what we did was completely appropriate,” he told politickernj after the hearing. “You heard the official from the Obama Justice Department say that they wouldn’t change a thing about what we did.”

Could the situation have been avoided?  In this case, if the White House knew that Grindler’s testimony was going to undercut an effort to tarnish Christie’s reputation, the administration could have warned New Jersey Democrats that the hearing might not be such a good idea and urged that they cancel or postpone the session. Or perhaps the White House could have had Grindler take a little more time to review the proposed legislation, so that he could tell the committee the Justice Department was still studying the proposal, instead of trashing it.

Closer to home, there was another disconnect – this one involving the election of a lieutenant governor for the first time in New Jersey history. According to the state Constitution, gubernatorial candidates have 30 days from the date they are nominated to select a lieutenant governor running mate. This generally was interpreted – by the candidates, the media and political experts – as 30 days from New Jersey’s June 2 primary election, which would have placed the deadline at July 2.  But it turns out that candidates do not officially become nominees until the primary election results are certified by the Secretary of State, and Nina Mitchell Wells, who serves as Secretary of State in Governor Corzine’s cabinet, did not certify the results until June 26, giving candidates until July 27 to select their running mates.

In the grand scheme of things, the extra 25 days may matter little in November, but it is puzzling that Wells did not clarify the deadline sooner.  As far back as April, news reports were indicating that the deadline was July 2, and it appears that both major candidates were operating under the same timetable.  Why not set the record straight sooner?

What these two episodes illustrate is just how difficult it is for a chief executive to keep tabs on every agency and every employee in his or her administration – something that President Obama discovered quickly when a passenger jet and an F-16 fighter plane were authorized — apparently without his knowledge — to fly over New York City for an unannounced photo op that rekindled fears of the 9/11 attacks.

Political campaigns face similar challenges. They must keep large numbers of people on message when the stakes are high, time is short, and egos are gigantic. No campaign is perfect. For all of its historic accomplishments, the Obama campaign still made its share of mistakes.

Successful campaigns manage to move past their missteps so they become mere blips on the radar screen. For unsuccessful campaigns, missteps can become emblematic of flawed and failed efforts — as in images of Michael Dukakis at the controls of a tank in his 1988 bid for the presidency. Here in New Jersey, it is unlikely that any of this year’s candidates for governor will run perfect campaigns immune from mistakes. But come November, how they handled those missteps could be what makes the difference between winning and losing.

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