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Originally published Saturday, August 11, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Social media plus overzealous campaign workers equals collateral destruction

The trend of political campaigns to comb through a seemingly infinite array of comments by young campaign workers to find one sufficiently callous enough to inflict political damage on his or her candidate should give us all pause.

Special to The Times

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Back in the romanticized "good old days" of politics, we ran against each other in 1988 for the United States Senate -- and we can guarantee you, the era doesn't deserve its airbrushed image. Politics was a contact sport then, just as it is now. We got bruised, sometimes from punches landed on each other; others from self-inflicted wounds. They all hurt.

But in one respect the "good old days" really were better, and we were recently reminded of that by the news of a young staffer on a statewide campaign resigning because of unseemly and hurtful posts on Twitter she sent out while still in college. The staffer's father briefly served as Gorton's chief of staff. Although particularly wince-inducing and offensive, hers was certainly not the first, nor the last, case of statements made by a young staff person that reflect poorly on his or her candidate.

While we agree that the campaign's decision to accept her resignation was appropriate given the nature of the remarks, we have a growing sense of foreboding about this tactic of political combat. The trend of campaigns -- or their surrogates -- to comb through a seemingly infinite array of comments by young campaign workers to find one sufficiently callous enough to inflict political damage on his or her candidate should give us all pause.

This isn't to say such sentiments are excusable; they are not. But in the "good old days," campaigns in both of our political parties dealt with staff screwups internally -- including, in the pre-digital years, incidents that resulted in demotions, resignations, or firings. It was part of the maturing process.

But now that has changed, and it's why we are apprehensive.

One of the best, most energizing features of campaigns is the young people they attract. They bring enthusiasm and talent to the effort; it's heartening to see them exercising their citizenship and their desire to contribute to a cause greater than self.

Unfortunately, but predictably, with this age group also come impetuousness, blunders and the errors in judgment of youth -- perhaps especially common from those who are passionate about the effort. Mistakes, as they say, are often made. Given the idealism most young people bring to campaigns, knowing they've hurt the cause almost always has been punishment enough.

Back then, we took the public bruises because we were the ones in the arena. But in this age of social media, those mistakes are more public and more devastating to the young staffers themselves. Given the infinite nature of information in the digital age, not even time will heal those wounds -- they'll just keep popping up in Bing searches year after year. A young person's foolish -- but in our experience, seldom malicious -- lapse can have personal and professional repercussions disproportionate to the "crime."

We think the rough and tumble of political campaigns is a byproduct of participatory democracy, and accomplishing the mission is worth the bruises we've sustained along the way. Although the two of us have disagreed on many issues over the years, we're joining forces on this one: Let's call a cease-fire on targeting the tweets, posts, emails and other online venues where young people make egregious mistakes before they even join a campaign.

After they're on board, such items are fair game and staff people regardless of age should be held to the same standard as the candidate.

But let's lay off this game of destroying young people in the hope of scoring a hit on their bosses. It demeans our democracy, makes politics even less appealing to the truly idealistic, debases those who gloat over the collateral damage inflicted when they hit pay dirt, and is likely to keep young people from getting involved at all.

The digital age is obviously here to stay. Perhaps an incident like this will cause even more young people to realize the damage they can do to their future selves if they don't practice some impulse control when they have a smartphone in hand.

But just in case that doesn't happen, we'd urge the Washington state media to take the lead in establishing self-imposed standards in reporting in these cases. There's a lot more at stake than one election. And when the two of us agree on something, we hope you'll agree it's worth considering.

Slade Gorton, left, is a former U.S. senator and former attorney general for the state of Washington. Former Washington Gov. Mike Lowry ran and lost against Gorton in a U.S. Senate battle.

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