Are tech-savvy staffers one tweet from unemployment?

Are tech-savvy staffers one tweet from unemployment?
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Staffers on nascent presidential campaigns and in the halls of Congress are falling victim to their own cavalier behavior on social media. 

In the process, broader questions are being raised about what constitutes acceptable online speech — and what is an appropriate level of scrutiny for aides, who are not even on the ballot, to bear.

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Liz Mair, an online GOP strategist for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s political action committee, became the latest to fall on her sword late Tuesday, when she resigned after controversy erupted over tweets in which she had disparaged the first-to-vote state of Iowa. 

Her offense was condemned as particularly heinous by Iowa Republicans, because Walker, a likely presidential candidate, will need a strong performance in the Hawkeye State to win the nomination. 

Mair’s case bears some resemblance to that of Ethan Czahor, whom former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) hired to be chief technology officer for his political action committee last month. Czahor was hired on a Monday and swiftly resigned the next day, after distasteful tweets he wrote about women and gays immediately came to light.

The trend is equally apparent on Capitol Hill. Benjamin Cole, a staffer for Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) resigned last month after he was discovered to have compared African-Americans to zoo animals on his Facebook page. Schock himself will resign at the end of the month following ethics questions about his lavish spending. 

In December, Elizabeth Lauten resigned as communications director for Rep. Stephen FincherStephen FincherRep. Fincher to retire Export-Import Bank takes step toward renewal Transportation deal includes Ex-Im renewal MORE (R-Tenn.), after she criticized the first daughters, Malia and Sasha Obama, on Facebook.

Mair’s case is different in important respects. Not only were the offending tweets published before she was employed by Walker, but they were also an expression of a political opinion rather than a personal attack or anything more blatantly offensive.

One of the tweets said that Iowa was “embarrassing itself, and the GOP” during a forum featuring likely presidential candidates in the state in January. Another declared, “the sooner we remove Iowa’s frontrunning status, the better off American politics and policy will be.”

Some conservatives stoutly defended Mair, including Erick Erickson of
RedState.com, who wrote that Walker’s team had “botched” the episode by not standing by her.

Others told The Hill that Mair had been pushed out for the cardinal Washington sin of excessive candor. 

“Liz Mair’s observations — if you were to ask privately, the majority of people in the Republican Party probably wouldn’t disagree with them,” former congressional staffer Kurt Bardella said, noting that some controversies occur “not because anyone really disagrees with you, but you messed up by telling the truth.”

Bardella is intimately familiar with staff controversies, having been fired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) after it emerged that he had shared emails between him and reporters with New York Times journalist Mark Leibovich, who was then writing his tome on Washington political culture, This Town.

Other conservatives share Erickson’s view, arguing that the Walker campaign-in-waiting erred in not shoring up Mair in the face of the attacks.

“The Walker people essentially gave in to blackmail by the Iowa Republican Party in terms of picking and choosing their staff,” said Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson. “I like Scott Walker a lot, but they made a mistake by letting themselves be bullied.”

Wilson, who is known for a colorful online persona, also expressed unease about how political culture is moving to quickly condemn staffers. 

“In one more cycle, they’re going to be going through these young, up-and-coming people’s Instagrams from college, and it’s going to be like, ‘Oh my God, beer pong!’ ” he said. “If you are going to hold people accountable for every word since the dawn of time, then you’re just going to end up with complete ciphers” populating the political world. 

The new trend poses problems from every side. Colin Delany, who has worked on the digital element of political campaigning for two decades and is the editor of epolitics.com, said there was clearly a line where “hateful or racist or just downright awful” sentiments were unacceptable, such as in the cases of Czahor and Cole. 

But, he added, “The problem for political staff is that the range for acceptable political speech is just a lot narrower than it is for nonpolitical speech.”

“If you think about how many people work on a statewide or nationwide campaign, how could you possibly go back through five years of Facebook posts or tweets from everyone?” Delany said. “You always have to worry about things being taken out of context.”

Not everyone is so sympathetic. One staffer for President Obama’s 2008 campaign, referring primarily to the resignations of the Walker and Bush staffers said, “I’m a little surprised by it. It’s not like social media is a new thing. People should probably know better by now.”

The Obama staffer acknowledged that the pace of change had seemed especially fast around the time the president was first elected. When his presidential campaign got off the ground in 2007, the staffer recalled, “the only people who had Facebook accounts were people who were within two or three years of getting out of college. No one older than that had a Facebook account” on the campaign. 

Now, the person added, “I advise young people starting out to just delete their Facebook pages. I just see it as an enormous liability.”

To some, that step might seem prudent, if a little sad.

“I can say with 1,000 percent certainty that, with every intern who applies for a position on Capitol Hill, the hiring manager is absolutely looking at their Facebook and Twitter and Instagram,” said Bardella. “And it’s not so much that they are looking — ‘Oh, you had an underage beverage’ — but there is the question of judgment.”

Delany agreed, wryly noting how times have changed.

“When I was coming up, it was smoking pot that got you in trouble,” he said. “Now, it’s social media that can turn everything upside down.”