Political Consultants in a Gilded Cage

I've already written about political writer Joe Klein's plea to rid politics of consultants who, he claims, have hijacked the quadrennial national dialogue that our presidential campaigns are supposed to be, and made them into bland, pointless and unspontaneous exercises that fail to engage voters.

Reviews of his book, Politics Lost, have been mixed. Some reviewers have said Klein is merely stating what everyone already knows, while others say he's wrong to blame the consultants and should instead blame the weak-willed candidates who listen to them. In his Washington Post review, Peter Beinart (a next-generation Joe Klein type who edits The New Republic) suggests that the consultant problem is just a mask for the Democratic Party's larger confusion:

Klein rightly flays Gore and Kerry for not being true to themselves. But he is also harshly critical of the old liberal orthodoxies that Democratic political consultants devote so much time to camouflaging. All of which raises a large and difficult question that he never quite answers: How can contemporary Democratic candidates be personally secure in their beliefs when their party is not? Even if Democrats could liberate themselves from the intellectually and morally stifling grip of consultants like Shrum, would they have any coherent ideology to espouse?

Beinart and Klein both point out that the successful Republican candidates of the past 30 years have not been so in thrall to their consultants. The GOP treats consultants like hired hands — professionals who produce and place the ads, write the press releases, put message points in the hands of surrogates and organize get-out-the-vote campaigns, but who wouldn't dare tell the candidates to say things they don't believe in. So, it would appear, the consultant affliction is something Democrats will have to address. If they do, Klein suggests, they might find their lost souls.

However: Left-wing blogger Markos Moulitsas (Daily KOS) has been writing in Slate this week about Klein's book in a epistolary debate with Republican media guru Stuart Stevens. In yesterday's entry, Moulitsas suggests Democratic candidates are helpless against the power of party-approved consultants:

(C)onsultants 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.

So, according to Moulitsas, John Kerry was given no choice but to listen to Robert Shrum's ill-conceived advice. It was part of the deal that got him the nomination. Kerry rival Howard Dean was done in by the same consultant mob, not because he was a bad candidate, but because he threatened their stranglehold on the party.

Klein wants the next Democratic candidate to be someone who ignores focus groups and polls, takes at least one unpopular position and is willing to be himself. Moulitsas suggests that such a candidate has no hope of prevailing "anytime soon" — due to the greed of consultants who both control the inflow of campaign funds, and insist on their cut of the money raised. Hmm, what to do, what to do?

I know: The next Democratic candidate who will really earn not just the nomination but the White House will be the one who agrees to hire all the consultants — and then ignores them! If all Shrum and co. really want is their payday, let them have it. To a consultant, the commission on an advertising message heavily tenderized by focus-group is the same as the commission on an ad that the candidate him-or-herself writes. It's a perfect solution: Hire the consultants, then trap them in a gilded cage!

Wouldn't they grumble to the press? Don't these consultants have friends at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times that they could whisper to? Sure. In fact, my dream candidate would encourage them to leak like this. Get a story placed on how the candidate is ignoring his consultants, and the whining consultant gets another million dollars in media-buy money to play with. The public would be thrilled, the press would be amazed, when the next Democratic candidate tells the conventioneers, "I spent $25 million on the top-priced political consultants our party has to offer–and I didn't listen to a word they said!"

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