The central question facing those attending or speaking at the American Conservative Union’s CPAC conference this week is why they failed to produce a GOP challenger who could beat a relatively weak incumbent in President Obama last November. For some, it’s about policies, for others it’s about message, for still others it’s about the candidate himself, and for those who don’t fall into one of the first three groups it’s about the nuts and bolts of campaigning — technology, infrastructure and everything that falls into the category known as the “ground game.”
Each of these debates matters, because the GOP had significant failures in each respect in 2012. Anyone who wants to see conservative politicians elected to implement conservative policies needs to pay attention.
While there are differing opinions among the folks here concerning each of those items, the most passionate disagreements I saw Thursday, by far, were those pertaining to the consultants who run many a campaign. The discussion would have made Erick Erickson — the WSB radio host and RedState.com editor who has written about the failure of the GOP consultant class before — proud.
Now, to be fair, part of the discord in this debate (titled “Should We Shoot All the Consultants Now?”) had to do with the fact one of the participants was a Democratic pollster, Pat Caddell. But offering more or less the same anti-consultant line as Caddell was Republican National Committeeman Morton Blackwell. On the other side, a couple of GOP consultants tried to limit the criticism to “bad consultants.”
Offering a pair of statistics to back up his claims of consultant malpractice — one-quarter of voters who wanted all or part of Obamacare repealed voted for Obama anyway, as did one-third of those who said government is too big — Caddell laid into the consultant class for what he described as its self-dealing, cronyism and conflict of interest.
“Some of this borders on RICO statute violations,” he said, referring to the federal law covering racketeering and organized crime.
Blackwell broke it down roughly as follows:
A consultant wins a race and gets more clients. He wins more races and gets still more clients. Soon, he can’t spend individual time on all his clients, so he relies more heavily on buying advertising (think TV ads), which requires little time. This is in his own financial interest, because he gets a 15% commission on most media buys. On the other hand, he gets no commission for campaign funds spent on what Blackwell called “people-intensive activities” — knocking on doors, training volunteers, that kind of thing.
With his campaign success, this consultant decides to get into lobbying to generate lucrative fees, although he keeps some campaign work because of the media-buy commissions. These commissions give him an incentive to push more fund-raising and spending even in the late stages of winning campaigns, especially those by an incumbent, even though that may prevent other candidates in the party from getting the money they need to win. In 2012, Blackwell noted, $1 billion spent comes out to some $150 million in commissions for the consultants.
All of this is compounded, he said, by the fact many of the large national campaign organizations for each party — think the GOP’s House and Senate campaign committees — try to decide which candidate will receive its favor and then twist his or her arm to choose consultants from its “approved list of vendors which included only people who were cronies of the people in charge of these respective national committees.”
That, Blackwell said, “was an awful thing.”
Caddell argued this was a specifically Republican problem: Democrats, he said, “play to win, we play for life and death.” But he said of the worst GOP consultants, “They have no problem playing the Washington Generals to the Democrats’ Harlem Globetrotters.”
The actual consultants on the panel weren’t buying the whole story.
“Consultants are either geniuses or idiots every two years,” said Jeff Roe, founder of Axiom Strategies. “Consultants’ role on this is somewhat overstated.”
On the other hand, he noted, “It’s not a soup kitchen. We do get paid. And at the end of a campaign where you were paid to lose, you should try to figure out what happened.
“There are bad consultants, and I’m not going to defend bad consultants. There are a lot of hacks.”
Personally, I tend to think Caddell and Blackwell have a very good point. But at the same time, I find it hard to believe one party has a monopoly on self-interested politicos who care first and foremost about money and yet keep getting hired despite spotty track records. Ultimately, I think blaming people other than the candidates and party who struggled last year to offer a compelling argument for why they should be elected will only mean ignoring more fundamental questions facing conservatives and the party closest to their beliefs.
– By Kyle Wingfield