Is the golden age of political consulting over?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a nation in possession of an upcoming election must be in want of an American political consultant. I learned this iron law of global politics in Hungary in early 1990 while covering the first unfettered campaign in the former Soviet bloc. Budapest, at its glorious dawn of democracy, seemed to boast more Democratic and Republican strategists, pollsters, and media mavens than all the steakhouses in Washington. For once, the primary motivation behind this American invasion was not avarice but altruism and adventure. The consultants, understandably, reveled in being part of history and, less understandably, radiated a swashbuckling arrogance that announced, in effect, “We almost elected Michael Dukakis as the Leader of the Free World–and now we are here to teach you the secrets of our success.”
But for all their high-mindedness, American consultants manage to inject a practiced air of cynicism into any campaign they touch. Here were the Hungarians being taught “message discipline” just months after they were liberated from the clotted conformity of Communist censorship. Even little things conveyed the sense that modern politics is greased by insincerity. A Democratic pollster suggested to a left-of-center party that parliamentary candidates leave behind “Sorry I missed you” door hangings at times when they know with near-certainty that everyone is at work. That way, candidates could foster the belief that they care about their would-be constituents without having to waste time talking to them.
The cultural divide between the Americans and the Hungarians was at times comic. A Republican consultant, counseling leaders of a conservative party on the dominate-the-news-cycle virtues of claiming that they would be the largest force in the new parliament, recommended giving a precise estimate of the number of seats they would win. “But if we say that will only win so many seats then all our candidates will think they will be the ones who will lose,” the Hungarian campaign manager complained. “No,” insisted the American, “all candidates are optimists.” Radiating a world-weariness that encapsulated the historical fate of Central Europe, the campaign manager replied, “That may be true for Americans. But the Hungarian people are not used to being winners.”
American political consultants have come across as innocents abroad ever since Ross Thomas–that wry master of the international caper novel–published his prescient The Seersucker Whipsaw in 1967, which portrayed bumbling American PR men trying to win an election in a fictional country that seems modeled on Nigeria. The pioneering have-passport-will-travel political strategist was Joe Napolitan, a veteran of the 1968 Hubert Humphrey campaign, who discovered that prospecting for votes in Venezuela could be almost as lucrative as exploring for oil. Today, running campaigns in exotic locales (preferably countries with plush hotels and glorious beaches) solves the odd-year problem built into the American political calendar, since otherwise it is hard to find high-fee electoral work in years not divisible by two.
But the oft-derided campaign consultants, both in America and abroad, may be on their way to becoming yesterday’s cultural villains, much as network television has gone from a vast, society-threatening wasteland to a semi-irrelevant annoyance. It is hard to see anything laudable in bringing manipulative TV spots to an emerging democracy, but it is also difficult to detect the inherent evil in, say, exporting micro-targeting techniques. And ironically, as overseas campaigns themselves change, the boorish Washington-based consultant may be the one Ugly American stereotype that is actually fading during this Bush-whacked decade.
Now that American political campaigns have become a multi-billion-dollar industry–with revenues in this presidential cycle rising faster than gasoline prices–it is surprising how little attention has been paid to the inner workings of the consulting firms that prosper from every contribution, whether from an 83-year-old grandmother dipping into her Social Security check or a CEO wanting to guarantee future access to the White House. Sure, there are flickers of conflict-of-interest concerns when a big-name consultant shows up on a lobbyist registration form. But, for the most part, the business dealings and foreign election work of the top American ad-makers and pollsters has long been shrouded in secrecy.
Do campaigns around the world have to follow the American model with dueling attack ads, poll-propelled political positioning and dumbed-down campaign themes? That is the question at the core of James Harding’s engaging first book, Alpha Dogs: The Americans Who Turned Political Spin into a Global Business.
Harding, the editor of The Times of London, conjures up the late twentieth-century era of footloose American political consultants placing their indelible stamp on political campaigns around the world. The book is ostensibly a history of the Sawyer Miller Group, a high-flying (always in first-class seats) 1980s Democratic consulting firm with the messianic belief that shrewd political tactics can leap cultural and linguistic borders in a single bound. Even though Sawyer Miller disappeared in the 1990s in a series of mergers, the firm’s alumni have prospered–including Mark McKinnon, the maverick media consultant for both George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns; Mark Malloch Brown, the former top adviser to Kofi Annan who is now a member of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet and a life peer; and Mandy Grunwald, who was Bill Clinton’s media consultant in 1992 and performed the same role for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries.
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