Issue #10, Fall 2008

Mad Men

Is the golden age of political consulting over?

Alpha Dogs: The Americans Who Turned Political Spin Into a Global Business By James Harding • Farrar, Straus and Giroux • 2008 • 252 pages • $25

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.

But Harding runs into trouble when he tries to make the overarching argument that Sawyer Miller was the change agent that all but single-handedly transformed election campaigns from Manila to Milan: “The firm’s legacy was the globalization of politics, a host of copycat companies of globetrotting political consultants–and lingering bitterness.” The roots of Harding’s ire are understandable. Anyone who romantically, albeit naïvely, believed that emerging nations and former Soviet satellites could serve as laboratories of democracy cannot help being depressed at the current made-in-America look of global campaigning, with Mark Penn’s firm doing polling for Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Dick Morris working behind-the-scenes to help Mexico’s Felipe Calderon go negative in his 2006 campaign. As Harding writes, “Politics in country after country has become as similar as Starbucks–and about as surprising…Elections are carnivals. Message discipline has supplanted ideological debate. Parties have been in long decline, with personalities taking their place. Politics is estranged from policy-making.”

All sadly true, but it’s rather far removed from Sawyer Miller, which had client billings of just $10 million in 1989. It is hard to believe that Europe–not to mention Asia and South America–would have leaders worthy of Pericles were it not for the unlikely 1982 partnership between David Sawyer, a Boston Brahmin documentary filmmaker turned political media consultant, and Scott Miller, the legendary ad man who created the tag line “Have a Coke and a smile” and the Mean Joe Greene ad.

Harding, to his credit, knows that he is overselling in claiming that Sawyer Miller was the bridge to the 21st century, and the book is studded with too-be-sure passages that undercut his thesis: “The irony of Sawyer’s entry into Israeli politics was that he did not much affect the outcome of his first election there.” But Harding writes with such brio that he almost pulls off the high-wire act of making the reader care about what could be seen as “the biography of a soon-forgotten PR company.” How can anyone resist dead-on sentences like “Idealism, of course, is to politics what peer pressure is to smoking; it gets you started”?

Sawyer Miller lasted less than a decade as a global power house and helped bring to power only one major international figure–Corazon Aquino of the Philippines in 1986. Even here, the story is muddled since, as Harding dutifully notes, “To this day, the Aquino camp generally belittles the role of Sawyer Miller.” According to Harding, the firm also unequivocally deserves credit for masterminding the defeat of the 1988 Chilean plebiscite that would have granted another eight-year term to authoritarian strongman Augusto Pinochet. Instead of attacking Pinochet’s dictatorial legacy in TV spots, Sawyer Miller concocted “a campaign devoid of fact, laden with feel-good sentiment, but the upbeat ads stunned people, drawing them into the promise of a reunited Chile and a return to the democratic traditions they were proud of.”

The firm had far greater difficulty with foreign elections in which they were working for a flesh-and-blood candidate. Harding sees the downfall of Sawyer Miller in its failed 1989 campaign to elect novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as president of Peru. Vargas Llosa had a 50 percentage point lead in the polls before the Americans hit Lima. But as Harding recreates the campaign, the blame for snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory seems to rest primarily with the candidate. It was Vargas Llosa, against the advice of his New York-based consultants, who cut a deal with the Peruvian political establishment, making him look like just another back-room politician. Moreover, Vargas Llosa, who often complained that campaigning cut into his time for reading the classics, was running as a populist candidate with a fatal flaw–an ill-concealed distaste for the impoverished voters who should have been the bulwark of his campaign.

In its final years as an independent firm, Sawyer Miller chose paychecks over principle, fronting for foreign governments with troublesome human rights records like Colombia. But these ethical lapses are peripheral to what animates the book. Harding is a romantic railing valiantly and vainly against made-in-America hucksterism. He approvingly quotes former Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan’s lament in the midst of his losing the 1979 election to Margaret Thatcher, “I don’t intend to end this campaign packaged like cornflakes.” But that battle against advertising verities was lost decades ago. Adlai Stevenson offered a similar complaint when Dwight Eisenhower hired a Madison Avenue advertising agency in 1952: “This isn’t Ivory Soap versus Palmolive.” To believe that it is possible to remove from politics the hired-gun strategists, the pollsters with their cross tabs about left-handed junior-college graduates in swing states, and the admakers who believe that an entire campaign can be expressed in a single 30-second spot is akin to rooting for the IBM Electric typewriter in a rematch with the computer.

Globalization is also–in case you haven’t noticed–a reality. And that is the problem with Harding’s thesis. It was inevitable that America would export political talent, much as we send McKinsey business consultants and Morgan Stanley financial advisers hurtling around the world. Even in this period of economic decline, Americans still excel in a few vital areas like fast food, military interventions, and manipulating gullible voters. In some corners of the world, there is even a cachet to favoring American experts over the local talent trying to emulate the political trickery seen on CNN. Even without we-don’t-speak-foreign-languages-we’re-American consultants mapping out campaign strategies while lying around the hotel pool, politicians the world over would still be emulating Barack Obama’s cool and his rhetoric of change.

Maybe I have mellowed–or maybe it is because Bob Shrum is no longer whispering in the ear of the Democratic nominee–but I no longer believe that political consultants rank up there with telemarketers and televangelists on my personal enemies list. Sure, I hate voice-of-doom negative TV ads as much as any goo-goo reformer. But I also know where the responsibility for guttersnipe politics lies–with the candidates themselves. The addition of the often-derided phrase, “I am Joe Dokes, and I approve this message,” may not have elevated the tenor of politics, but it certainly underscored the lines of authority in any campaign. During the 2000 race, Al Gore confided to his adman Carter Eskew that he constantly felt like the character in the movie Being John Malkovich with “all these voices in my head telling me what to do.” Castigate Shrum all you want–as Joe Klein does so devastatingly in his 2006 book Politics Lost–but it was Gore himself who allowed himself to be consultanted into defeat (or, at least, into deadlock in Florida).

It is intriguing that the heavy-handed machinations of campaign consultants so far have been a minor motif in the 2008 presidential race. Yes, Penn was a bumptious figure in the Hillary campaign; it is shocking that the pollster actually believed (and my sources assure me this was true) that California was a winner-take-all primary. But Penn, for the most part, was channeling Bill Clinton–and no reforms in the world can ever get rid of meddlesome spouses, especially when they are former presidents. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney, the first management consultant to seek the presidency, proved that you can be an on-message candidate with the deepest pockets in the race, surrounded by more handlers than Tom Cruise, and still lose big. Other than perhaps Hillary Clinton’s red-phone ad, it is hard to think of a 30-second spot that made much of a difference during the primaries in either party. Although the jury is still out, it is conceivable that broadband, YouTube, and TiVo have permanently clipped the wings of the high-flying consultants by puncturing the power of TV commercials.

What we are left with this fall are two unusually genuine candidates. Not since Ronald Reagan versus Jimmy Carter in 1980 has there been a general-election pitting two self-created candidates like Barack Obama and John McCain. They are not immune to compromise and triangulation (think of Obama wimping out on FISA or McCain’s abject reversal on the Bush tax cuts). But they exude an authenticity certainly not seen from Gore or John Kerry or that “compassionate conservative” named George W. Bush. Their nomination may be the exception that proves the rule, or perhaps their unlikely emergence is a sign that voters no longer are buying what Sawyer Miller, Penn, and Shrum are selling. Maybe, just maybe, the Alpha Dogs of political consulting finally have been confined to their kennels.

 

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