Advice to Just-Elected Officials

Immediately following the November 2 election, I mailed a letter of advice to 27 just-elected conservative officials.  I have decided to release this letter to the public.

This historic election brings much opportunity and danger.  Hundreds of grassroots conservatives will soon enter local, state, and federal government.  Liberals in the bureaucracies, media, and the party establishments will do their very best to co-opt or derail principled conservatives.

I hope this advice prevents good men and women from falling into the traps that have caught newly elected conservative officials too often in the past.

The text of my letter follows.


November 8, 2010

Dear Conservative Friend,

Congratulations on your election.

Some years ago, I gave some written advice to a just-elected conservative friend who took it to heart.

I had known him for many years, since he was a college freshman, and he appreciated and acted on my advice.  I hope you will too.

Here for you is an updated version of that advice.

You should be getting a lot smarter now.  That’s not because almost everyone will now tell you how smart you are.  They will, of course, like never before.  Even your old friends will laugh much harder at your jokes.  But saying you’re smart doesn’t make it so.

The reason you’re likely to be smarter is that you’re no longer a candidate.  Every candidate promptly loses about 30 I.Q. points.  Most people recover some of that loss if they win.  Losers sometimes make an even more rapid recovery of good judgment.

You now face a new set of problems and opportunities.  And as a conservative friend whose principles I believe you share, I hope to catch you now, while the possibilities are all open, with the best advice I can give.

The most important decisions you will make right now are personnel decisions.  Personnel is policy.

If you pick staff who genuinely share your policy priorities, you’re likely to achieve much of your agenda in office.  If not, you probably won’t be able to do very many of the important things you now hope to do.

I urge you to make full use of my Leadership Institute’s free Employment Placement Service, headed now by Andrea McCarthy (703-247-2000, [email protected]).  Our user-friendly, special website, ConservativeJobs.com, has hundreds of resumes posted by conservative job seekers.

The people you hire necessarily must make decisions.  If you could make all decisions for them, you would not need to hire them.  As my grandmother often said, “Why keep a dog if you’re going to bark yourself?”

Instructing people who don’t share your beliefs to make decisions based on your beliefs doesn’t work very well.  Sometimes it causes disasters.

In a subordinate, principles without competence is at least dangerous and certainly ineffective for you.  But competence without principles can be deadly.  Hire people whose loyalty to you is based on your principles, not on your ability to advance their careers.

Conservatives make a great mistake if they think:

I’m as conservative as one can be and still be responsible.  Anyone to the right of me is to that extent irresponsible.  So I’ll hire only people who exactly share my philosophy and those who are to the left of me.

If you base your hiring on that thinking, you’ll inevitably be dragged to the left by your staff.  You’ll undermine your political base.  And you’ll fail to do most of what you now hope to do.

You can’t hire only people who share your exact beliefs.  No two people truly agree on everything.  You should hire as many people to the right of you as to the left of you.

Governing is campaigning by different means.  You should always keep a secure home base.  Those you hire in government should be broadly representative of the coalition which elected you.  Nothing reassures elements of your political base more than to know they have good representation among your staff.

If significant political forces which supported your election decide you can no longer be the object of their affection, they will make you the object of their pressure.  And when you run into a few troubles, as every elected official does, they won’t instinctively jump to support you.  They will ask themselves, “Why bother?”

Keep the faith.  You can’t make friends of your enemies by making enemies of your friends.  Learn to live with the reality that some people won’t like you if you do what you were elected to do.

No matter what you do, some people will be your enemies.  They will never love you, so don’t worry about trying to make them love you.  You can make most of them respect you, though.  If you work at it, you can learn better the art of how to say unpleasant things pleasantly — a not-widely-understood reason for Ronald Reagan’s political success.

For most people in your coalition, you are not the center of the universe.

You were a cause they thought worth fighting for, but most of them have fought for other good causes before and fully intend to fight for other good causes while you’re in office and long after that.

They know they are in a long ball game.  You may have the ball right now, but their long-term interest is to win the game.  So you have to show them by your actions that your main interest also is to win the game for them, not just to be the star who gets his picture in the newspapers.

The media are not your constituency, even if they think they are.

Your constituency is the voters, especially the coalition which elected you.  You can’t count on the news media to communicate your message to your constituency.  You must develop ways to communicate with your coalition which avoid the filters of the media.

Focus on your base.  Write to them.  Meet with them. Ask for their advice.  Honor them.  Show yourself to be proud of them.  Support their activities.  Show up at their events.  Help other politicians, activists, and leaders who share their priorities.

People expect politicians to be selfish, so they specially love politicians whose actions show them to be unselfish.

Power will certainly corrupt some of your colleagues and may tempt you.  Resist those shiny temptations and shun those who don’t deserve to be defended.  Keep your pants on and your hands out of other people’s wallets.  Character is what you do when you think no one is looking.

Liberals in the media failed to defeat you.  Now they will use carrots and sticks to tempt and to intimidate you.  They will define any betrayal of your coalition as a sign of “growth.”  Don’t fall for that nonsense.

The only way you can get the liberal media on your side is always to betray your supporters, which you know would be political suicide.

Media people on the left operate on a double standard.  They can forgive a liberal politician almost anything.  They hold conservatives to an absolute standard.

You could occasionally please leftist journalists by breaking with conservative principles, but they would make sure to rub it in so your supporters would never forget how you disappointed them.  And when you get into any political difficulty, you can never expect any mercy from the liberal media.

The local, state, and national political landscape is littered with the moldering wrecks of the careers of politicians who won conservative support by giving their word on conservative principles and then broke their pledges.

If you keep your word, you can keep your friends and win at least respect from most of your enemies.

Every issue that is a key priority of an important element of your coalition should always be a priority for you.

In a system of separation of powers and checks and balances, people realize you can’t accomplish everything you’d like to.  But you must say and do things which prove you are doing the best you can to live up to your supporters’ reasonable expectations.

Complete victories are delightful but rare.  That means you should prove yourself willing sometimes to win only incremental victories and sometimes to fight losing battles for good causes.

Curious as it may seem, a politician rarely hurts himself when he fights in a principled way for a cause which loses or against a cause which wins.

Be cautious about making promises, but once committed, keep your word no matter what.  You have two things, your word and your friends.  Go back on either and you’re dead in politics.

Back in 1967, when I worked for the national College Republicans, I went to Kentucky to be the full-time youth coordinator for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Louie Nunn.  My work in that campaign produced results which caused many people to start taking me seriously in politics.

Nunn narrowly won.

In December 2007, my wife Helen and I had dinner with Kentuckian Fred Karem and his wife Suzanne — old friends.  Fred had been campaign director for Nunn and served in high positions through all four years of Gov. Nunn’s Administration.

Fred Karem told me that, as soon as Gov. Nunn had picked all the major appointees who would serve in his administration, he assembled them for a meeting.  Louie addressed them and said, approximately:

“I am not worried about my political enemies now.  They can’t hurt me.  I know how to handle them.

“What worries me is you.  You could hurt me and perhaps ruin what I ran to achieve if any of you do things which are illegal or scandalous.

“Any of you not prepared to promise me today that you’ll behave to the highest standards during my administration should quietly leave today.”

The four years of Gov. Nunn’s administration had virtually no ethical problems.  He lived more than 30 years after serving as governor.  He actively supported Ronald Reagan for president in the nomination contests of 1976 and 1980.  He died respected by all and beloved by many.

You have the potential now to be highly successful.  Please, from the outset, make sure all the people you bring into government are vetted carefully.  And stress to them, together and separately, that you expect them to operate at all times consistent with the highest ethical and moral standards.

You may find that many people now believe you owe jobs to them or to their associates.  Sometimes it’s very hard to say no.  However, in the long run, it’s better to be seen as ungrateful than to hire people with dangerously flawed characters.

Let me know whenever I can be of help.

All the best.


Morton C. Blackwell
President, Leadership Institute

P.S.    Please make full use now of my Leadership Institute’s free Employment Placement Service and our special website, ConservativeJobs.com.