Some of my best friends are consultants. They tend to be the most entertaining people in the political community: eccentric, fanatic, creative, violently verbal and deeply hilarious—the sort of people who sat in the back of the room in high school and shot spitballs at the future politicians sitting up front. But their impact on politics has been perverse. Rather than make the game more interesting, they have drained a good deal of the life from our democracy. They have become specialists in caution, literal reactionaries—they react to the results of their polling and focus groups; they fear anything they haven't tested.
In early 2003, I had dinner with several of the consultants who advised Al Gore in the 2000 presidential campaign. I asked them why Gore, a passionate environmentalist, had spent so little time and energy talking about the environment during the campaign. Because we told him not to, the consultants said. Why? I asked. Because it wasn't going to help him win. "He wanted to talk about the environment," said Tad Devine, a partner in the firm of Shrum, Devine & Donilon, "and I said to him, 'Look, you can do that, but you're not going to win a single electoral vote more than you now have. If you want to win Michigan and western Pennsylvania, here are the issues that really matter—this is what you should talk about.'"
Gore won Michigan and Pennsylvania, but he lost an election he should have won, and he lost it on intangibles. He lost it because he seemed stiff, phony and uncomfortable in public. The stiffness was, in effect, a campaign strategy: just about every last word he uttered—even the things he said in the debates with George W. Bush—had been market-tested in advance. I asked Devine if he'd ever considered the possibility that Gore might have been a warmer, more credible and inspiring candidate if he'd talked about the things he really wanted to talk about, like the environment. "That's an interesting thought," Devine said.
And it's far more of a Democratic problem than a Republican one:
In Austin, Texas, the political consultant Mark McKinnon watched the Gore and Kerry campaigns from a unique perspective. He had spent his life as a Democrat and now he was working, as a matter of personal loyalty, for his friend George W. Bush. Very much to his surprise—and to his wife's horror—McKinnon was in the midst of a conversion experience, not so much to the Republican philosophy but to the Republican way of doing campaigns. It was so much simpler. Maybe it was because Republicans were more businesslike and saw their consultants as employees, rather than saviors (and paid them accordingly—with a flat fee, rather than a percentage of the advertising buy). Maybe it was just the way Bush and Karl Rove went about the practice of politics. But this was, without a doubt, the tidiest political operation he'd ever seen. There was none of the back biting, staff shake-ups or power struggles that were a constant plague upon Democratic campaigns. There was little of the hand wringing about whether the shading of a position would offend the party's interest groups. Issues, in fact, seemed less important than they did in any given Democratic campaign. And McKinnon had come to a slightly guilty realization: maybe that was a good thing. Rove's assumption was that voters had three basic questions about a candidate: Is he a strong leader? Can I trust him? Does he care about people like me?
Read the whole thing, it's excellent. Liberals are in a world of hurt, that's for sure. And of course now far-left bloggers are calling the tune as well. It will get worse, much worse, for the Democratic party before it gets better.
Klein predicts at the end that the most natural candidate will win the 2008 presidency. Assuming Bullworth's not available, I guess Giuliani's our man. I can live with that.