The Book Club

Have Evil Political Consultants Corrupted American Politics?

Dear Markos,

First off, let me say I’m a fan of your Web site and your work. I hope you don’t mind if I butter you up for a moment, since you and Joe Klein share a deep skepticism—if not a loathing—of contemporary political consultants and what they (OK, we) have done to the body politic. Even though I’m an evil Republican media consultant myself—I worked on Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns—I agree this is probably a healthy instinct, all in all. But I suspect the root cause of your mutual disappointment in the last two presidential elections lies more with the candidates than the consultants. Then again, I would think that, wouldn’t I?

Joe Klein’s new book, Politics Lost, has the unambiguous subtitle “How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid.” By “people,” Klein mainly means political consultants: He feels the culture of consulting has hijacked something that was once far more pure, unfiltered, and, well, good. The lost political spirit he longs for is the one captured by Robert Kennedy right after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Kennedy, a presidential candidate for all of two weeks, gave a compelling (and, most important, consultant-free) speech in Indianapolis from a flatbed truck in front of a largely black crowd. “Nearly forty years later,” Klein writes,

Kennedy’s words stand as a sublime example of politics in its grandest form, for its highest purpose—to heal, to educate, to lead—but also sadly they represent the end of an era: the last moments before American political life was overwhelmed by marketing professionals, consultants, and pollsters who, with the flaccid acquiescence of the politicians, have robbed public life of much of its romance and vigor.

Klein tracks the transformation of politics from this era, when eloquence and passion blended together and candidates roamed the earth like philosophers, to today’s, which he sees as shaped by an unholy alliance of money, television, consultants, and just about everything else you don’t like about the system. For him, the manufactured moments of “message box,” focus-grouped politics are the antithesis of yesterday’s “Turnip Day” epiphanies—a reference to that patron saint of the unpolished, Harry Truman, who described to reporters how he sowed turnips as a boy. “In the process, Truman was able to remind voters who he was—an average guy, a man of the soil, who was plainspoken to a fault.” And so, Klein sees the last quarter of a century as an epic—and mostly doomed—struggle between the authentic Turnip Day instincts of politicians and the artificial calculations forced on them by their handlers. The handler he beats up on the most is Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, who “has spent much of his adult life smoothing out the rhetoric of the politicians he works for, taking out the bumps and spontaneity … dulling the passion of politics.”

Klein is a good writer, and at his best he brings a near crazed exuberance to a scene, a joyful whiff of Hunter S. Thompson but with more focus and, well, sanity. While Klein mourns the corrupting influence of consultants, he clearly and passionately loves the spectacle and seduction of politics. At its heart, Politics Lost is less a coherent treatise and more a memoir of a love affair with American political culture. And like most love affairs, it’s haunted by the thwarted joy of moments that might have been.

But his take, I have to say, strikes me as mostly wishful thinking and a bum rap for Shrum to boot. The underlying theory is that a candidate has some natural gift, which is corrupted by an evil consultant like Shrum. But who are we kidding? The problem with candidates like Al Gore and John Kerry is Al Gore and John Kerry. It wasn’t Bob Shrum or any other consultant who made Al Gore walk out on the White House lawn and call the just-impeached Bill Clinton one of our greatest presidents, or who made John Kerry stand by the Grand Canyon in August of 2004 and assert that, knowing what he did now, he’d still vote for the war. These were personal decisions and, one assumes, perfectly genuine and heartfelt. And very likely fatal blows to their candidacies.

As somebody who has worked as a media consultant in a lot of Republican campaigns, I’m amused to see how much credit is given to supposedly superior Republican campaign tactics and apparatus. It’s a theme of yours, Markos, and Klein hits it as well. But, guys, I have to tell you: We consultants ain’t that good … and believe me, the Democratic consultants like Shrum aren’t that bad. In blaming consultants for losing Democratic campaigns, Klein is telling liberals a story they desperately want to hear. Only it’s not true.

Truth is, I think Joe has got it all wrong—top Democratic consultants like Shrum, who has won a ton of races, have been saving candidates from themselves for a long time. With that little bit of heresy, I’ll pass it on to you, Markos, but riddle me this: Which hurt John Kerry more—his confederacy of consultants or his basic inability to articulate a coherent and consistent position on the essential question of the day, that little thing called Iraq and the larger war on terror?