Washington Post


Sunday, April 25, 1999 ; Page B04

"Nobody knows anything," they say in Hollywood. Ditto in D.C. These two company towns are populated by executives who have to make important decisions every day without the benefit of knowledge. This makes those bigwigs nervous--so they hire consultants like me.

The Cold War may be over, but an arms race continues. Only now, the weapons aren't nuclear. Today's leaders try to annihilate their political competitors with war chests of money and high-priced advice--and it's democracy that's getting blown to bits.

I can't pretend to be the first to make that point. Larry Sabato launched a career with it. About 20 years ago, Sabato, who is now director of the University of Virginia's Center for Governmental Studies, wrote that political consultants "have inflicted severe damage upon the party system and masterminded the modern triumph of personality cults over party politics in the United States." In fact, consultants have just about replaced political parties as the foundry of political mettle. In the age of made-for-TV elections, old-fashioned political party activity such as conventions and primaries are little more than sideshows. The real drama is the candidates' scramble to line up the top fund-raisers, media consultants and pollsters, and earn the mantle of "inevitability." The only sure result is that elections are more expensive and voters more alienated.

I'm not a corporate fat cat, so I don't have firsthand knowledge of how business interests use campaign contributions to increase profits. But I am a political consultant (or, at least, I was one until this morning), and I do know how consultants can put personal gain and glory ahead of their clients' interests--and thus increase the cost of campaigns.

It's like the old story about Willie Sutton and his reason for robbing banks: "because that's where the money is." It's hard for consultants to resist when a candidate is willing to pay lots of money for what 30 or 40 years ago he'd have gotten for free. Instead of just giving clients their most informed opinions, too many consultants have found out they can add a markup to their ideas. This helps explain the explosive growth of market research in politics.

Focus groups, for example, are a terrific way for consultants to justify their retainers and give their clients a fun-filled look at how "real" people react to their messages. Most of us just don't have the math skills to understand the nuances and subtle interpretations found in the back pages and cross-tabulations of modern opinion polls. Focus groups are a way for pollsters to say, "Never mind all that, let's put on a show." As anyone who's spent time on the dark side of the one-way mirror knows, nobody sets up a focus group with an open mind. Instead, consultants "go in to get their preconceived notions reinforced," says one advertising hotshot. "There's nothing more open to manipulation than focus group results."

Consultants may drive up the cost of democracy, but they're not the only ones to blame. They're just part of a food chain. Like many corporate executives these days, there are plenty of campaign directors who don't really care how money is spent. In fact, flashy expenditures are seen as a ticket to respectability--particularly when the money is spent on "media." That's why so many nonprofits, for example, fall victim to their consultants' seductive coo that all this issue advocacy is nice, but what they really need to do is get on TV.

Can't afford a full-blown TV ad campaign? Then let me tell you about public service announcements (PSAs), a savvy consultant will implore. PSAs are "free" commercials about important issues that broadcasters, in a quaint relic of public interest regulation, have to run. But while stations may donate the air time, no one else in the food chain is so generous.

The media consultant still must hire a film crew. The film crew has to rent equipment and pay for state-of-the-art production techniques in lavish studios. Then there's the cut for production managers, tape duplicators, caterers and travel agents--and you're almost done. Better throw in some money for a public relations company to make calls to the television stations, because TV executives have a million PSAs to consider when they finally do get around to scheduling one (which is usually in the middle of the night).

While focus groups and PSAs may sometimes be the right prescription, every candidate or interest group really needs to discover for themselves what advertisers call the "unique selling proposition." A few years back, the New York Times ran a story about the advice the National Audubon Society was getting from its consultant. The reason people were lukewarm about the Audubon Society, the consultant said, was that "it was too closely associated with birds." Sure, it had practically 100 percent name recognition and wide respect for more than a century of service. But birds? Couldn't they come up with something a little more edgy?

Bad advice? As far as many consultants are concerned, it's "my way or the highway." In his recent book, Dick Morris recalls President Clinton questioning why Morris wanted to fire the consultant who had been buying his media time.

"I was inflexible," Morris writes. "Either you let me have my team intact, as is, or you build your own without me."

Morris didn't want to lose control over the media buy, because to quote Mr. Sutton again, that's where the money really is. (Professional media buyers will protest that their jobs are really demanding. And it's true. They have to take station executives to lots of lunches and sporting events.)

But here's a question most candidates don't think to ask their media buyers: Are you a full-time political-time buyer, or do you spend most of the year working for Madison Avenue? That's important, because the young audiences that most advertisers are attuned to just don't vote as often as their elders. Inexperienced--or greedy--media buyers are responsible for inflating the cost of modern campaigning by at least 20 percent. Make political time cheap and eliminate the "buy," and two things will happen: Campaign costs will fall and the number of consultants will drop like a rock.

When I was starting out, my professional brethren could just about fit in one room. Now there are a million of us out there. Some are indeed talented, sincere people who are truly committed to their clients' goals. Others are devotees of P.T. Barnum, who said there's a sucker born every minute; they know there are plenty of suckers who will run for office every two or four years. I've seen consultants hang up on their clients, mock their clients and even use their clients' phones to line up jobs with their clients' opponents. There's one consultant who proudly brags, "I've got 25 percent liberal Democrats as clients, 25 percent conservative Democrats, 25 percent conservative Republicans and 25 percent Republican moderates!" And there are plenty of suckers who'll pay handsomely for one-fourth of a consultant's loyalty.

Not all of us have lost our way, of course. A political consultant I know was visited one day by representatives of an industry group involved in a high-stakes tussle with the government. Here's a blank check, they said; you can fill in any number you want if you help us take our message to the American people. To his credit, this consultant threw the group out of his office. He didn't agree with them, didn't like them and didn't want their money.

The next fellow, of course, probably welcomed them with open arms, and happily filled in a number with lots and lots of zeros.

William Klein, who has made a career of giving advice, failed to heed the warnings of the friend who told him this article might be "career arson."