I grew up with the idea of political consultants as cynics who were primarily dedicated to winning. An individual consultant might have personal policy preferences, but advancing their career by getting their candidate elected came first. The current crop of GOP consultants does not appear to be living down to this model – and that is too bad. The country would be better off if Republican consultants acted (in their professional capacity) as soulless guns for hire.
Let us start off with some facts. According to a survey by the College Republicans, only 16% of young voters thought that abortion should be legal in all cases. Another 37% of young voters said abortion should be legal “up to a point”. A narrow majority (51%) of young voters though abortion should always be illegal or generally illegal with some exceptions. Obama got 60% of the youth vote in 2012. You would think that Obama’s abortion extremism and the abortion extremism of the national Democratic party would provide Republican consultants with an opportunity to drive a wedge between the Democrats and some young (and-not-so-young) voters who oppose at-will late-term abortion and support extending legal protections to infants who survive botched abortions.
That is what you would think. Instead, the Republican consultant class has produced ads mocking Obama’s performance in the first debate, and highlighting business owners who made vague complaints that Obama was taxing and regulating them too much. Some of the ads were just a series of poorly connected in-jokes that only make sense to political junkies.
One way to understand the often ineffective, and sometimes just plain odd recent behavior of the Republican consultant class is to think of them not as hired guns, but as part of a wider elite Republican culture that also includes donors, Washington political aides, former elected office holders and lobbyists (the last three groups overlap to a very large extent). This culture shapes how these consultants believe campaigns should be run. Attacking Obama for his vote on born-alive legislation would just be too harsh. Constantly attacking Obama over “you built that” really speaks to the average American.
In A Theory of Political Parties: Groups, Policy Demands and Nominations in American Politics, a collection of political scientists argue that party politics is dominated by “policy demanders”. Policy demanders are activists and groups who use the party as a vehicle for their common agenda. Policy demanders are not about winning elections at all costs – at least not if those costs involve sacrificing too much of what the policy demanders want. Policy demanders are about advancing their interests and their preferences even if it sometimes means reducing the odds that their political party will maximize its political advantage.
You see this with today’s Democratic party. President Obama’s combination of paralysis and bad faith on the border crisis issue is not doing anything to help the prospects of the Democratic party in the short and medium-term (that is, during the career cycle of the top Democratic leaders). Obama’s response is doing nothing to help Vice President Biden (age 71) become President Biden. Nancy Pelosi’s response to the border crisis is doing nothing to help her (age 74) become House Speaker Pelosi any time soon. If you think of the Democratic party as simply a machine designed to advance the electoral interests of a team of politicians, the behavior of Obama and Pelosi makes no sense. If you think of the Democrats as a collection of policy demanders, then their behavior can seem more reasonable.
Maybe the current crop of Republican consulting class are best seen not as policy demanders, but as a group of politics demanders. They are concerned less with governing (policy) and more concerned with how campaigns are conducted and what issues are emphasized. There are certain themes they are comfortable employing and certain themes they find irritating. A given Republican consultant might personally be opposed to late-term abortion (to the extent they ever think about the issue), but late-term abortion is not the kind of thing that elections are about. The campaign priorities emerge from an elite culture (a center-right elite culture) that prioritizes economic issues and views the social issues as a distraction or a necessary evil. This is not just about dollars and cents. It is about how priorities emerge within a culture. This is a culture where it was widely believed that endlessly repeating “you built that” had some kind of talismanic power over the electorate.
This view of how campaigns should be run leads the current Republican consultant class to treat social conservatism as an embarrassment or (at best) a chore. Social conservatives are seen as an isolated, exotic and toxic group. The consultants see it as almost absurd that Republican should carefully pick social issues fights that unite social conservatives with moderate voters while isolating liberal Democrats. The “values” stuff belongs at the Values Voters Summit. Also, a few cryptic lines about a culture of life in the presidential nominee’s speech at the national convention are probably unavoidable.
By way of comparison, the national Democratic political elites are confident and aggressive social liberals. This means they know how to take advantage of opportunities (like in the case of Todd Akin). It means the Democratic political class is looking to create political opportunities (as in the gratuitous HHS contraception mandate and the form of the opt-out for religious groups). The Democratic political elites are constantly looking for ways to connect the social liberals in the party’s base to persuadable voters. That means choosing the political ground, striking first, and investing in getting their message out. By contrast, Republican consultants seek to placate social conservatives with as little fuss as possible, while trying to craft a different message for persuadables. Occasionally, you will see a Republican consultant suggest excommunicating social conservatives.
The result is that the GOP has missed (and continues to miss) major opportunities, and much of the consultant class doesn’t seem to mind. According to the group-centric view of parties, the party is a coalition. One group within current Republican coalition is not holding up its end. Social conservatives (and just plain Republican partisans) should start demanding either better politics from their consultants or better political consultants.