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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Bustin’ the Consultant Mafia

Many kudos to Amy Sullivan for the public service she performed in her new Washington Monthly piece about why the cast of big-time Democratic political consultants never seems to change, no matter how often their advice is bad and their candidates lose.
She hit all the right notes: the popularity of consultants who pander to their clients by telling them what they want to hear; the huge conflict of interest involved when party committees hire staff who peddle their consulting businesses to the candidates who dare not offend Those Who Write the Checks; the particularly sleazy practice (abandoned by the Bush-Cheney campaign this year, in one step Democrats should emulate) of “strategic consultants” deciding to run ads which they then place for a fat percentage rakeoff; the persistent “Peter Principle” of successful pollsters or speechwriters or direct mail operatives graduating to message and strategy roles they are incompetent to carry out; and of course, the cozy inter-connections between consultants who make sure nobody new gets into The Club.
The only thing I can add to Amy’s tale is one slightly different insight about why candidates keep hiring unsuccessful consultants. Here’s the way it often works, especially for new candidates for the House or Senate. Unless they are already political titans and/or self-funded, the first thing they need to do is to establish themselves as “credible,” and one easy way to do that is to retain a “name consultant.” Then they have to raise the money necessary to pay them, and also to implement their “strategy,” which may well involve additional dollars for the consultants. At that point, the candidate feels extremely stupid not taking that expensive advice, even if he or she suspects it’s the same cookie-cutter crap the consultants are selling to their other clients, or indeed, have been recycling for years. It’s a perfect vicious circle that leads predictably to Palookaville, though the losing consultant will typically shrug and blame the loss on the candidate or on the “mood of the Midwest” or something.
I vividly remember one particular Senate candidate a while back who admitted privately that he went through exactly that vicious circle, accepting his consultant’s bone-headed strategy because he’d be a bone-head to admit he hired the wrong guy in the first place. It made me wonder if Democrats should rethink the standard practice of mentoring prospective candidates by letting them talk to current electeds who’ve won. Maybe we need a Losers School of defeated candidates who can warn their successors of the mistakes they made, and tell them very directly which Loser Consultants they should avoid like the plague.

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