Why do the Democrats reward failure?
There was a sentence in this Associated Press report on possible replacements for Terry McAuliffe to be the new Democratic Party chairman that caused me to pause and re-read to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating: Others who have expressed interest in the chairmanship include former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, Democratic activists Simon Rosenberg and Donnie ...
There was a sentence in this Associated Press report on possible replacements for Terry McAuliffe to be the new Democratic Party chairman that caused me to pause and re-read to make sure I wasn't hallucinating:
There was a sentence in this Associated Press report on possible replacements for Terry McAuliffe to be the new Democratic Party chairman that caused me to pause and re-read to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating:
Others who have expressed interest in the chairmanship include former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, Democratic activists Simon Rosenberg and Donnie Fowler, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and former Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Leland. Howard Dean, a former Democratic presidential candidate, is considering whether to join the race. Some Democrats have approached current chairman Terry McAuliffe about remaining in the job. (emphasis added)
As someone who likes to see an incentive system whereby losing political parties search for ideas and individuals that can help them win again, what the f#%$ are the Democrats asking McAuliffe to stay on thinking? This is emblematic of a larger problem bedeviling the Democrats — an oligarchy of party consultants that are not ousted after losing. Amy Sullivan has a great Washington Monthly story on the problem. Some highlights:
[Joe] Hansen is part of a clique of Washington consultants who, through their insider ties, continue to get rewarded with business even after losing continually. Pollster Mark Mellman is popular among Democrats because he tells them what they so desperately want to hear: Their policies are sound, Americans really agree with them more than with Republicans, and if they just repeat their mantras loud enough, voters will eventually embrace the party. As Noam Scheiber pointed out in a New Republic article following the great Democratic debacle of ’02, Mellman was, perhaps more than anyone else, the architect of that defeat. As the DSCC’s recommended pollster, he advised congressional Democrats to ignore national security and Iraq in favor of an endless campaign about prescription drugs and education. After the party got its clock cleaned based on his advice, Mellman should have been exiled but was instead…promoted. He became the lead pollster for John Kerry’s presidential campaign, where he proffered eerily similar advice—stress domestic policy, stay away from attacking Bush—to much the same effect. Hansen and Mellman are joined by the poster boy of Democratic social promotion, Bob Shrum. Over his 30-year career, Shrum has worked on the campaigns of seven losing presidential candidates—from George McGovern to Bob Kerrey—capping his record with a leading role in the disaster that was the Gore campaign. Yet, instead of abiding by the “seven strikes and you’re out” rule, Democrats have continued to pay top dollar for his services (sums that are supplemented by the percentage Shrum’s firm, Shrum, Devine & Donilon, gets for purchasing air time for commercials). Although Shrum has never put anyone in the White House, in the bizarro world of Democratic politics, he’s seen as a kingmaker—merely hiring the media strategist gives a candidate such instant credibility with big-ticket liberal funders that John Kerry and John Edwards fought a fierce battle heading into the 2004 primaries to lure Shrum to their camps. Ultimately, Shrum chose Kerry, and on Nov. 3, he extended his perfect losing record. 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….. 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. 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.” Rosenberg hints at a second Democratic deficit: The party has no truly brilliant strategists in positions of power. Such talent is always rare in both parties and tends to come out of the political hinterlands, often as part of a winning presidential campaign team. Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign was waged by a crew of Georgia political operatives with the help of unconventional pollster Pat Caddell. Four years later, Reagan defeated Carter by relying on a California-based gang of professionals. James Carville and Paul Begala were largely unknown before they took Bill Clinton to the White House. And outside the South, the team of Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, and Mark McKinnon weren’t much less obscure when they put together the strategy for George W. Bush’s winning 2000 campaign. Republicans have proven much more adept than Democrats at giving their best talent a national stage. 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. 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. It might be David Axelrod in Chicago, who developed the media strategy for the then-unknown Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) primary campaign; West Coast strategists Paul Goodwin and Amy Simon, who helped Democrats regain the legislature in Washington state; or even unconventional D.C.-based consultants like Anna Bennett, the pollster who engineered Melissa Bean’s upset of veteran Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.) in November. But any new talent will likely remain on the national margins—running races for Congress and judgeships—until someone breaks up the consultant oligarchy. The electoral system takes care of dead weight when it comes to politicians. The proof is in the political wreckage evident after yet another year of Democratic defeats at the polls. Dick Gephardt—after 10 years at the helm of the Democratic minority in the House—has decided to go back home to Missouri. John Kerry is returning to the Senate instead of stretching out his legs in the Oval Office. The consultants, however, live on. After pocketing a $5-million paycheck following the election, Shrum is back from a vacation in Tuscany and now advising Sen. Jon Corzine’s (D-N.J.) gubernatorial race. Mellman, whose advice helped sink Democrats for two consecutive campaign cycles, continues to line up clients. As for Hansen, his connection to Daschle may not help him now that the South Dakotan has vacated the Democratic leader’s office. But don’t cry for Joe Hansen—he’s the consultant for incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
Read the whole thing.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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