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Dems Need to Re-Think Consultant Policies

Amy Sullivan has a must-read article for Democratic strategists in the Washington Monthly entitled "Fire the Consultants: Why Do Democrats Promote Campaign Advisors Who Lose Races." Sullivan makes a compelling case that the Democrats have created an unhealthy tradition of rewarding failure, while denying promising consultants who actually win races the opportunity to show what they can do. Says Sullivan:

Since their devastating loss last fall, Democrats have cast about for reasons why their party has come up short three election cycles in a row and have debated what to do. Should they lure better candidates? Talk more about morality? Adopt a harder line on national security? But one of the most obvious and least discussed reasons Democrats continue to lose is their consultants. Every sports fan knows that if a team boasts a losing record several seasons in a row, the coach has to be replaced with someone who can win. Yet when it comes to political consultants, Democrats seem incapable of taking this basic managerial step...

Few insiders dare complain about the hammerlock loser consultants have on the process—certainly neither the professional campaign operatives whom the consultants hire nor the journalists to whom the consultants feed juicy inside-the-room detail...[According to] Dan Gerstein, a former advisor to Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). “If a company like General Motors had the same image problem that the Democratic Party does, they would fire the guys responsible,” Gerstein told me. But not Democrats. “We don't just hire those guys,” Gerstein said, “we give them bonuses.”

This Peters Principle effect of Democratic operatives rising—or muscling their way—up to the level of their incompetence, happens for a simple reason: The consultants are filling a vacuum. After all, someone has to formulate the message that a candidate can use to win the voters' support. Conservatives have spent 30 years and billions of dollars on think tanks and other organizations to develop a set of interlinked policies and language that individual Republican candidates and campaigns can adopt in plug-and-play fashion. Liberals are far behind in this message development game...

Republicans, of course, don't have any natural monopoly on strategic talent—they just give their best young strategists chances to run the biggest national races. In all likelihood, there is another Karl Rove or James Carville out in the Democratic hinterlands, who ought to be playing essential roles in the most important races...But any new talent will likely remain on the national margins—running races for Congress and judgeships—until someone breaks up the consultant oligarchy.