Politics & Policy

Autopsy 2012: Blame the Consultants?

Pat Caddell at CPAC
CPAC headliners urge the GOP to rethink how it uses paid “experts.”

For as long as he’s been president, Barack Obama, has been the top target for attack at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. D.C. But this year, there may have been a close second: the Republican political-consultant class, which many CPAC attendees blame for the party’s poor 2012 showing.

Newt Gingrich bashed them for being “out of step,” Sarah Palin called on activists to “furlough the consultants,” pollster Kellyanne Conway railed against a “staff infection,” and Brent Bozell, head of the Media Research Center, told me that “the last thing we want is for the anti-conservative professional class to be infiltrating our ranks.”

But Pat Caddell, a Democratic consultant and former pollster for such presidential candidates as Jimmy Carter, Jerry Brown, and Gary Hart, left the most blood on the floor. He headlined a CPAC panel the title of which left no one guessing: “Should We Shoot All the Consultants Now?” 

“The Republican party is in the grips of the CLEC — the consultant, lobbyist, and establishment complex,” he began. He described CLEC as a self-serving, interlocked network of Beltway bandits for whom success in securing large fees trumps achieving political victories. 

#ad#“Ever since we centralized politics in Washington, the House campaign committee and the Senate campaign committee . . . decide who they think should run,” he declared. “You hire these people on the accredited list [they say to candidates], otherwise we won’t give you money. You hire my friend or else.” He concluded that Republican donors were too often played for “marks” or “suckers” by the consultant class. His comments call to mind an old saying from playwright David Mamet: “If you’re in the con game and you don’t know who the mark is, you’re the mark.” 

“In my party, we play to win,” Caddell said. “You people play for a different kind of agenda.” He acknowledged that Democrats had their own incestuous interconnections but insisted that Republicans have a bigger problem when it comes to self-dealing. “When Democratic consultants fail, they get sent to the minors until their win-loss rate improves,” he told me afterward. “I don’t see that happening with GOP consultants often enough. They fail upwards.” He singled out the Romney campaign for “a failure of strategy, a failure of tactics, most of all a total failure of imagination.” He noted that one-quarter of voters who wanted to repeal Obamacare wound up voting to reelect its architect; similarly, one-fifth of voters who wanted smaller government voted for Obama.

Without directly taking on Romney, Republican National Committee member Morton Blackwell, from Virginia, joined Caddell in criticizing the practice of many campaigns of allowing consultants to take a commission when they score media placements, which skews the campaign’s efforts away from grassroots efforts and direct contacts with voters — for which no commission is paid. He blames the overreliance on paid consultants for “the looting of millions of dollars” and the general decline of citizen participation in politics. 

Former Romney staffers I spoke with called the comments by Caddell and Blackwell “over the top.” They pointed out that whatever other campaigns do, their team paid flat fees to consultants for media work. And the most visible failure of the campaign — the Election Day crash of the ORCA program that was supposed to allow volunteers to use smartphones to mobilize voters — had no impact on their get-out-the-vote efforts, they believe. (In truth, the failure of ORCA confused and demoralized thousands of volunteers and gummed up the overall work of voter mobilization.) 

No matter how much blame consultants should shoulder for the 2012 defeats, it’s clear that campaigns must devote a lot more attention to consultants’ activities. Politics has indeed become a big business; at the same time, the political community in Washington has remained relatively small. The temptation to dole out back-scratching contracts and run retread campaign messages is powerful.

That’s why Republican donors and candidates should pay a lot of attention to the RNC’s announcement on Monday of its report on the failures of the 2012 campaign. Chairman Reince Preibus calls it “an internal review,” while others deem it an “autopsy.” Among the subjects it will address is the need to restructure the presidential-primary process and better engage minority voters. But early drafts of the plan also suggested that the GOP realizes it must rethink how it picks consultants. Morton Blackwell told me he had confidence the report would address his concerns. Pat Caddell told CPAC attendees he believed it would be “a whitewash.” 

So the political world eagerly awaits the RNC report. There is more than enough blame to go around for last November’s defeats, but not enough solid discussion about which problems to tackle first. The RNC “autopsy” may be a good starting point for that crucial analysis.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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