Politics Lost

Consultants Have Hijacked the Democratic Party
New books dissected over email.
May 18 2006 1:32 PM

Politics Lost

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Dear Stuart,

Let's be honest: Millions of people didn't vote for George Bush, they voted against John Kerry. That's the reason that Karl Rove's first ad for the Bush/Cheney campaign wasn't a positive spot reminding people of Bush's first-term successes; it was a negative ad attacking John Kerry. In late 2003, public discontent with Bush was high, and Bush's very effective consultants took about three milliseconds to realize that the key to victory would be dragging Kerry down into the mud. Bush's consultants did what they needed to do to win the race, as Republican consultants do election after election—regardless how much they debase our political culture in the process. And Kerry's consultants, just like Democratic consultants do race after race, failed to respond appropriately.

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As former Bill Clinton spokesperson Mike McCurry said after the 2004 elections, the Republicans ran the first race of the 21st century, while Democrats ran the last race of the 20th century.

Whether Dean would have won in 2004 is really an academic question, but we can wonder how Americans would respond to an authentic candidate. Unfortunately, Howard Dean was never given the opportunity to try that out. Karl Rove has been quoted as saying his team breathed a sigh of relief when Kerry won the primary because, if nothing else, Dean would've provided a clear distinction between the two candidates' positions on the war in Iraq. Contrary to all the bluster from your side, Iraq was never a clear-cut electoral winner, and it only became an advantage for Bush when Kerry, looking out at the Grand Canyon, said he'd still vote for the war knowing what he knew at the time—in other words, that the administration oversold the need for war with lies and manipulated intelligence.

You are right that Democratic politicians share in the blame for hiring these loser consultants, but perhaps you view this through the prism of your party. As a Republican Party official once told me, "We treat our consultants like the hired help. You guys treat them like equals." That would be bad enough, but it's even worse than that: We treat our consultants like they're our bosses.

As Jerome Armstrong and I show in our new book, Crashing the Gate, consultants run the Democratic Party bureaucracy. Party officials dole out contracts to well-connected consultants, knowing full well that the happy beneficiaries will be running the show themselves in the next cycle, similarly handing out contracts to those who took care of them during the previous election. So, when Democratic candidates go to the party looking for financial help, that party money comes with a very big string attached: They can get the millions they need, but only if they hire the party's chosen consultants as well.

We can kvetch about the politicians and their penchant for hiring these consultants all we want, but for the average candidate, there isn't much of a choice. Our party establishment foists these losers on their campaigns. And this dynamic is just as true in 2006 as it was in 2004 and earlier. This system isn't going to change anytime soon, unfortunately.

Now, none of my arguments should suggest that I think all consultants need to be lined up against the wall and fired. Consultants are a necessary part of any campaign. Campaigns need television ads, field organizers, strategists, Internet organizers, fund-raisers, and direct mail. Consultants aren't inherently evil, but the way they are hired and compensated, and how thoroughly they manage their candidates, constitutes a real problem. What's worse, and as the documentary Our Brand Is Crisis vividly illustrates, we are now exporting American-style political consulting to the rest of the world, much to the detriment of (in the case of this movie) Bolivia.

Still, consultants aren't the only ill. As I wrote earlier, the media (including Joe Klein) share in the blame for creating personality- and sound-bite-driven campaigns. And the entire primary process is broken. You write that, "Democratic Party voters and left-leaning journalists got it. They understood Dean perfectly, and they didn't want him to be president." Never mind that it's not the media's job to decide who gets to be president; the fact is that Democratic voters never got a chance to decide on the issue. Dean's fate was sealed by a few thousand party hacks in Iowa's archaic and indecipherable caucus system.

So, if your point is that not all consultants are bad, and that consultants are necessary in a political campaign, you won't get an argument from me. That's all true. My point is that, in the Democratic Party, consultants have stifled innovation and created a self-interested clique of insiders who have driven the party into the ground. Klein's point is that these consultants have debased a political process he seems to think was once pure and unsullied by image-handlers and focus-grouped pandering (even though that ideal world probably never existed).

As in any issue, there are shades of gray and caveats galore. But ultimately, any effort to identify what has gone wrong in politics today must necessarily include the role of consultants. And for that reason, Klein's book is a service to those of us who have been trying to shine a spotlight on this problem. The consultants aren't the only problem, but our politics will never improve until their behavior is reformed.

Thanks for joining me in discussing Klein's book, Stuart, and I'll see you on the other side of the partisan divide in the next election.

Markos

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