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January 21, 2005

Clearing out the dead wood

Evergreen Politics ally Kari Chisholm takes note of Amy Sullivan's article "Fire the Consultants" in this month's Washington Monthly, in which she argues that Democrats have consistently failed to fire consultants who consistently fail to win.

The article leads with some bashing of some of the star losers of the Democratic consulting firmament, but more interesting is Sullivan's discusison of some of the underlying structural reasons why this happens:

...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.

Indeed, most Democratic elected officials have been running recently on warmed-up leftovers from the Clinton brain trust, ideas which were once innovative but are now far from fresh. With little else to go on, consultants—many of whom came to prominence during the Clinton years—have clung to old ideas and strategies like security blankets. “Democratic consultants are being asked to fill a role they're not suited to,” says Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democratic Network, “to come up with ideas and electoral strategy in addition to media strategy.”

Sullivan astutely observes how Republicans are thinking different by giving "their best young strategists chances to run the biggest national races."

While Democrats have permitted a Washington consultancy class to become comfortably entrenched, Republicans have effectively begun to pension off their own establishment. “The D.C. consultants for the GOP have their list of clients, but they're definitely on the outside looking in,” Chuck Todd told me. “The Bush people have been very careful to give them work…but they're not in the inner circle.” In 2004, seasoned Washington media strategist Alex Castellanos paid the bills with a handful of safe congressional races and a few unsuccessful primary challengers. Meanwhile, nearly every tight Senate race (North Carolina, Alaska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Florida) was handled by a Tampa-based firm, The Victory Group....

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.

These dynamics definitely operate at the state/regional scales as well, and not just in political candidate consulting.  Who are our bright young stars?  Sullivan suggests that Paul Goodwin and Amy Simon, who helped Washington state Dems take back the legislature, might be the kind of talent we should be nuturing.  Are there any Washington state political consultants who just can't win and oughta stop getting hired?

Posted by Jon Stahl on January 21, 2005 at 11:17 AM in Strategery | Permalink


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Ah, you're talking about the greats and the near greats of my former profession.

Having been a Washington state political consultant for most of my career, I would have to say that, of the dominent consultants in state politics, all have won and lost their fare share of races.

FYI, the consultants that get the most business here (on the left) are Blair Butterworth, Christian Sinderman and Moxie Media who are probably the biggest (dollar-wise) players. Terry Thompson (TR Strategies, Michael Grossman (Fifty Plus One), Jeff Zenk (Chinnook) and Cathy Allen (Connections Group) all also get a good amount of business. Some years this second group seems to do more political (for example, in 98 Chinnook did a ton of political work), some years they do less.

Frank Greer, of the national firm Greer Margolis, lives here but does most of his work out of state.

Posted by: Dean Nielsen | Jan 21, 2005 3:12:01 PM

Dean, this is pretty hopeful. Perhaps our "consulting ecosystem" is healthier than DC's -- much as our state Democrats seem healthier and more effective as well.

Posted by: Jon Stahl | Jan 21, 2005 8:26:23 PM

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