The Buck Stops Here

One of Washington’s dirty little secrets is that the fiercest opponents of campaign reform are the political consultants themselves. A just-released survey of 200 pollsters, imagemakers and backroom strategists by the Pew Research Center reveals that I-need-a-new-BMW greed trumps ideology or party allegiance. Only 16 percent of the consultants (and just 23 percent of the presumably more liberal Democratic operatives) believe that banning soft money–the Holy Grail for reformers–is an “excellent” idea. Similarly, a paltry 18 percent of the Democrats surveyed give high marks to limiting campaign spending by so-called independent issue-advocacy groups.

The Pew survey doesn’t purport to explain this bipartisan skepticism about reform. But suggestive hints are buried within the data. Twenty-six percent of the consultants regard their peers as primarily motivated by money, the exact same percentage as mention something as old-fashioned as political beliefs. Even in off-years, few handlers are likely to be found by the side of the road holding up placards that read, “Will Poll for Food.” More than half of the overwhelmingly male consultants boast family incomes over $150,000 and a third scrape by on $200,000 or more.

All this buttresses Chatterbox’s long-standing belief that campaign operatives are the hidden force behind the ever-escalating cost of running for office. It is self-evident that there is more money to be garnered from a lavish spend-what-it-takes campaign like the recent bilking of Al Checchi than from an issue-powered insurgency. With consultants raking off as much as 15 percent in TV-ad-placement fees, it is not hard to glimpse the self-interest behind every 30-second spot. This is, of course, a near-taboo topic for political reporters who depend on consultants as news sources and often consider them friends. (Chatterbox’s own chums in the campaign game are, of course, numbered among the tiny altruistic minority).

Late-breaking thought: The Associated Press wire has been running a story about the $11 million raised at GOP congressional fund-raisers Tuesday night, along with another $1 million that the president rounded up for the Democrats. The AP ‘s suggested headline: “Politicians Raise Millions.” Yeah, and mailmen have been bitten by dogs.

Walter Shapiro