Is the golden age of political consulting over?
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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