04/11/2006 03:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Consultant Red Herring

There's a lot of talk - and a lot of books out - these days about how consultants have ruined the Democratic Party. Consultants are, of course, an easy target - they are nameless, faceless svengali-like figures. It doesn't take a ton of courage to simply bash "the consultant class." As Time columnist Joe Klein shows, all you need is egomaniacal opportunism - not insight, ideology or ideas (the excerpt Klein self-references in his latest Time column shows just how vapid he really is). But here's the thing: most people who have worked on political campaigns know that this consultant bashing is just a bit off the mark.

Let me preface the explanation of what I mean with a disclaimer: I in no way endorse the tired, pathetic, often half-witted thinking of today's consultant class. And I do believe consultants have contributed to the Democratic Party's awful election record in recent years.

But the operative phrase is "contributed to" - not "responsible for." Why? Because to focus more blame on consultants - as opposed to the politicians who hire them - is to avoid the real problem. In many cases, that is deliberate avoidance, so as to prevent raising the ire of politicians many in Democratic circles are still afraid to challenge - no matter how many times they sell us out. It's as silly as pretending that when you get sick the real problem is your stuffed nose, rather than the cold that is causing the stuffed nose in the first place. Actually, it's worse: it's like blaming the stuffed nose because you don't want to make the cold germs feel bad.

The fact is, candidates choose to listen to consultants. If a consultant is an idiot, the candidate is an even bigger idiot for listening to them in the first place. If a consultant gives terrible advice, the candidate who listens to them is even more terrible for listening to it. And often, the difference between a winning and losing campaign is a candidate who knows what they stand for and what they want to do and puts their consultants to work in the pursuit of those goals; Or, a candidate who has no idea what he/she stands for, and lets the consultants drive the entire campaign - often into the ground.

The flip side is also true. No consultant is responsible for an election win. As much as the media would like to build up the genius of people like Karl Rove and James Carville, the candidates are the ones who win elections.

That goes for lower-tier elections as well. The Montana Republican Party regularly hyperventilates in its newsletter that I am some sort of political guru for Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Anyone who has met Brian Schweitzer for more than 5 seconds knows what a complete joke that is. He is a guy who is a real leader and a powerful political force because he knows what he wants to do, and he demands the people who work with and for him get it done - not the other way around. The idea that he takes orders from anyone - especially me - is, to put it mildly, laugh-out-loud funny (which is why the Montana GOP e-brief is always one of my favorite pieces of comedic reading materials each week). And anyone who tries to take credit for a politicians' success has either been in Washington too long, or is a consultant themselves trying to get you to hire them.

Let's be clear - Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and Jerome Armstrong's new book Crashing the Gate is far more astute on this subject than Klein or other Washington pundits/operatives who are so afraid of being knocked off politicians' Christmas Card lists that they are trying to blame the Democratic Party's demise purely on the faceless, nameless consultant effigy - instead of on the often confused, soulless politicians who hire and listen to them.

While most in the media have simply said their book bashes consultants, Crashing the Gate touches on the one area of the consultant class that, I will admit, really is damaging to Democrats: not consultants' out of touch elitism or their idiocy (that, after all, is everywhere in politics), but the system designed to force new, first-time, or lower-tier candidates to hire and follow orders from consultants without question. Yes, that's right: the Democratic Party in Washington and in various urban power centers very brazenly demand that candidates submit to the consultant stranglehold - or face real consequences in the form of choked off campaign resources.

This isn't theory - it's fact, and you can confirm it with anyone who has worked on a Democratic race in recent memory. Or, you can look at Ryan Lizza's nauseating, desperate-to-suck-up-to-power piece on Sen. Chuck Schumer. Lizza, attempting to trumpet Schumer, accidentally ends up highlighting what should be embarrassing: namely, that the Democratic Party in Washington - which claims to respect candidates' autonomy - is actually trying to micromanage everything. That means not only insisting on candidates using often bad consultants, but hand-picked staff from Washington - or else face the sharp end of the fundraising bayonet. As Lizza writes:

"In exchange for helping candidates raise money, Schumer makes a demand: no amateurs. Anybody who wants DSCC help must have a campaign manager, a finance director, and a communications director personally approved by Schumer and his aides."

Then again, while this is certainly a problem, it still does not fully absolve the politicians - whether lower-tier or not - from the bigger responsibility for the party's demise than any consultant. Even under such enormous pressure from the Washington Establishment to submit to the consultant class, a good politician with actual convictions should be able to avoid the pitfalls of the consultant problem - there's ample evidence of this among the few effective politicians the Democratic Party still has.

The problem is, politicians who can resist this pressure are ones who have actual convictions. They are people who aren't willing to take orders from some blowhard consultant spewing out the latest red-state-blue-state B.S. they just read in National Journal and then charging an arm and a leg so they can continue living the high life in their Northwest Washington, D.C. mansion. And today, the Democratic Party has far fewer of those kinds of political leaders than it - and the so-called "liberal" punditry - wants to acknowledge.

Fix the politicians, run better candidates who actually believe in something, and get leaders who will give orders to consultants rather than take them, and you don't have a consultant problem. Continue letting the politicians off because you don't want to make them angry, and the problem will continue into perpetuity.