Just as the military and national security agencies use color codes or acronyms to determine threat levels and assess the potential danger, the political establishment ranks incidents on a scale of possible harm.
But instead of green, yellow or red alerts and terms like DEFCON four, three, two, one, less ominous-sounding terms are used. Words such as glitch, stumble, bump in the road and pothole, for example, characterize incidents that can be dealt with swiftly, tamping down any long-term impact.
When the problem rises to controversy, it commands broader high-level attention and mobilization of resources.
When controversy escalates to scandal, visions of television satellite dish trucks parked at the curb flash before one's eyes.
The secret shutdown of the Fort Lee access lanes to the George Washington Bridge for a fictitious traffic study began as a glitch. It has progressed through controversy until the media, by attaching "gate" as a suffix to bridge, have deemed it a scandal.
It has claimed two of Gov. Chris Christie's top appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, both forced to resign after withering testimony before an Assembly committee that indicated David Wildstein, director of interstate capital projects, and Bill Baroni, deputy executive director, cooked up a scheme to create chaos and paralyze Fort Lee by jamming the city streets with hundreds of cars, trucks and buses trying to get to Manhattan.
Speculation grew that the closures were ordered in retaliation for the refusal of the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee to endorse Christie's re-election.
While the Administration hoped the story would vanish with the resignations, it hasn't. A nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post has weighed in, and a blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution used the issue to illustrate the knee-to-the-groin style of New Jersey politics. The New York Times has published at least a half dozen stories and analysis pieces, all casting the episode in an unfavorable light.
Potentially more troubling for Christie is the unexpected involvement of United States Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who has asked the U. S. Department of Transportation to determine if the authority acted inappropriately.
While Middlesex County Assemblyman John Wisnewski has drawn considerable media attention in leading the Democratic Party effort to uncover the details of the closings and connect them to the governor's office, Rockefeller's move ups the ante.
Whether the story would have spread as quickly if Christie was not considered a leading candidate - the frontrunner in some quarters - for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 is debatable.
The reaction proves, though, that the context in which the governor will be viewed as long as he remains a potential candidate has been established. Every action he takes, every bill he signs or vetoes, every word he utters will be dissected and scrutinized in agonizing detail to determine how they will play in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.
His initial reaction was vintage Christie - laughing it off with a sarcastic comment that he himself moved traffic cones around on the access roads. In retrospect, he probably wishes he hadn't made light of the plight of people sitting in four-hour traffic tie-ups or the danger that was created if ambulances or emergency responders couldn't get through.
Like many seemingly innocuous political issues that suddenly spin out of control, the shutdown of the bridge access roads has sent the administration into damage-control mode.
Christie has said both Wildstein and Baroni made mistakes and fessed up to them. His comment that Baroni intended to leave the authority by the end of the year in any event was met with considerable skepticism.
There has been no evidence suggesting that the governor was aware of the bogus traffic study. Most of the speculation is that Wildstein and Baroni went rogue in an ill-conceived and disastrous political payback plot.
As the Administration struggles to contain the story, it does so while the threat code teeters on the edge of yellow and red and DEFCON is inching slowly toward level one.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.