Political Consultants and Conflicts of Interest

The departure of Mark Penn from Senator Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign highlights a core problem raised by the rise of today’s elite hired guns known as political consultants. They are in the business of selling their time, access and “strategic vision.” That core problem: they promise more than they deliver and they too often bring more baggage than an FBI wiretap.

Many political consultants start their careers with good intentions. They work for candidates and causes whom they believe in. They charge for their expertise, experience and skill, but that’s only fair — especially when it’s a fair price. But then comes a few successes or valiant failures. The consultant gets known. They get admired. They’re now in demand. So they create an infrastructure or join an existing one and that means getting more clients just to keep the apparatus busy and paid for. The result: more clients paying more money for less of the time and attention. And the more clients the more likely conflicts of interest arise.

In Mark Penn’s case it involved a meeting on behalf of his firm, Burson-Marsteller, with Colombia’s ambassador to the United States concerning a free-trade agreement Colombia wanted but one of his other clients, that would be Senator Clinton, opposed. To both Senator Clinton’s and Mr. Penn’s credit, he’s now left the campaign — sort of. Apparently he’ll still be available by phone and the campaign will continue to use Mr. Penn’s polling firm. But at least he’s officially out of the campaign.

Not all consultants face-up to their conflicts as appropriately. In 1988 I was chief of staff to California’s then-Lieutenant Governor Leo McCarthy. Lt. Governor McCarthy was then running for the U.S. Senate against then-incumbent Pete Wilson. As a state employee I was involved in campaign activity only after hours, but that was enough to provide a ringside seat to campaign consultants gone amuck.

Lt. Governor McCarthy’s consultants were David Doak and Bob Shrum recently off of a narrow reelection victory for California’s other Senator, Alan Cranston. For the McCarthy campaign, however, they were a disaster. Not only did they bleed campaign dollars from the campaign, the television ads they created were generally regarded as mediocre or worse. But the worst offence was Mr. Shrum’s meeting with Occidental Petroleum concerning a Los Angeles City ballot measure. Senator Wilson claimed to be an environmentalist, and was, of sorts. But protecting California’s coastline from oil drilling was a critical issue for Lt. Governor McCarthy. With one headline (and yes, it made the headlines) Mr. Shrum undermined his client’s campaign.

Did Mr. Shrum apologize? Or better still, resign the campaign? Nope. He just continued to draw his expensive fee for lackluster work. Senator Wilson won. Did Mr. Shrum’s career suffer? Nope. He continued to help a host of Democratic presidential candidates lose — but at least his fees haven’t gone down.

My point is not to lambaste Mr. Shrum. He’s neither special nor unique among his profession. Nor do I consider political consultants to be worthless — overpriced, perhaps, but not worthless. What interests me is the nearly mystical belief candidates have that they need a top tier consultant to win. Their presence  not only infuses the campaign with political experience, it gives the candidate confidence and reassures contributors.

That the confidence is often misplaced just doesn’t seem to matter much.

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