The missing maxim for our politics? ‘Engage your brain before you engage your weapon’

I was going to write a column on income inequality this week.  Starting with the passing of Phyllis Schlafly on Labor Day, it was going to explore how family structure contributes to the challenge, especially as women in my generation continue to surpass men in degree attainment.

Then NBC’s “Commander-in-Chief” forum came on.  I hadn’t planned on watching it, but my wife surpassed me in management of the remote control.

Hillary Clinton won the coin toss and came out first.  And I sat at my desk, astounded as she continually tried to convince the audience that there is some magic to a “header” or “marking” when it comes to classified material.  The subtext of her argument is, “if the marking’s not there, I needn’t be aware.”

Democrat Hillary Clinton at NBC's Commander-in-Chief forum on Wednesday night. Brian Snyder | Reuters

Democrat Hillary Clinton at NBC’s Commander-in-Chief forum on Wednesday night. Brian Snyder | Reuters

To quote an older woman from the GEICO commercials, “that’s not how any of this works!”

Executive Order 13526, signed by President Obama, clearly states “[i]nformation assigned a level of classification…shall be considered as classified at that level of classification despite the omission of other required markings.”  That isn’t a vast right-wing conspiracy; it is a regulation promulgated by the Democratic president she served under and seeks to succeed.  And by any objective measure, she violated it and the non-disclosure agreement she signed.

Unfortunately, it is easy for her and her supporters to deflect from these hard realities.  Why?  Because Republicans overplayed their hand on her private email server.  By itself, her secret account was wrong-headed and a mistake, but it wasn’t criminal.  Her lackadaisical approach to classified information certainly approached criminal behavior, but her opponents wrapped the disparate issues up together in two minutes hate.  That makes legitimate concerns easy to dismiss as mere partisanship.

Meanwhile, the FBI is content to let the court of public opinion try her guilt, rather than appearing to put their thumb on the scale of a presidential election.  Yet judging from social media, that “court” might not understand the subject it is weighing.  You see memes claiming “C” is for “Classified.”  Wrong.

Most Americans do not understand the myriad rules and regulations surrounding classified information.  And when it comes to military personnel specifically, all of this highlights what is called the “civil-military divide.”  Retired Gen. James Mattis — a legend amongst servicemembers and veterans — recently published a book on that exact subject.  His findings?  Americans love their military, even while they don’t know much about it.

For now, that might be alright.  Yet it will take all of us to keep it so.  As Mattis says, “I think the gap can be tolerated so long as we maintain a fundamental friendliness in America toward one another and a respect for each other.”

That “fundamental friendliness” appears fragile today.  National Republicans overreacting to the first reports of Clinton’s email server.  Democrats in Maine claiming “the world is watching” whether the legislature returns for a special session — at a cost of $40,000 a day — to pass some paper expressing disapproval of Gov. LePage, with no other effect.

In politics, we seem to first assume the worst of the other side, followed shortly by seeking political advantage.  The substance — inappropriate treatment of classified information, whether the Governor’s actions rise to the level of impeachment — is ignored.  This runs afoul of another Mattis maxim: “engage your brain before you engage your weapon.” 

So as we close in on November, it is incumbent on voters to engage their brains and find candidates who will help restore that “fundamental friendliness.”  It will be necessary whether we are facing a $20 trillion national debt, social changes partially driving income inequality, or hacking of the classified materials of the National Security Agency.
That, or we can just all write-in Gen. Mattis.  After all, he’s never gone bankrupt or mishandled classified information.  Unfortunately for us, that is the standard for 2016.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.