Death by Consulting

What drives Politics Lost is a wistful idea: Klein is in search of what he calls “Turnip Day” moments. It’s a reference to the Democratic Convention of 1948, when Harry Truman gave a feisty off-the-cuff speech in which he promised to call legislators back to Washington on “the 26th of July, which out in Missouri we call Turnip Day.” For Klein, this unexpected, unrehearsed mention of the deadline for sowing turnips in Missouri (it’s actually the 25th of July, for those who might be tempted to procrastinate) is “an appropriately inelegant shorthand for everything I love about politics.” Turnip Days, in other words, are those spontaneous moments when the politician takes a break, and a real human being shows through. Unfortunately, they’re increasingly rare. And the blame, Klein feels, lies with the rise of political consultants.

Klein chooses to start the book with the ultimate Turnip Day moment: Speaking to an inner-city crowd in Indianapolis one evening in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy had to decide whether or not to pass on the news that Martin Luther King had been killed. His aides, fearing pandemonium, hoped he wouldn’t. But Kennedy broke the news. He also broke a profound, if unofficial, vow of silence: showing his empathy, he reminded the crowd, “I had a member of my family killed.” Then he asked people to return home and pray. Unlike almost every other large city in America, Indianapolis stayed quiet. That’s a tough Turnip Day to match, and Klein’s disappointment is perhaps inevitable. But it’s understandable that he’s hooked.

While Klein mentions Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign in passing (famously documented in Joe McGinniss’s The Selling of the President), he reserves most of his passion, and exasperation, for Democrats. Among the biggest wrongdoers in Klein’s account are Pat Caddell, who came to prominence as Jimmy Carter’s pollster in the 1970s, and Bob Shrum, famous for penning Ted Kennedy’s speeches in 1980 (and, more recently, for helping John Kerry lose the White House). Klein credits Caddell with the invention of persuasion polling (that is, asking poll questions in order to change opinions) and with writing a memo convincing President Jimmy Carter to give the infamous “malaise” speech of 1979. Klein calls the malaise memo an “intellectual tour de force” and a “total bummer.” With Shrum, who emerged as chief consultant on the campaign of John Kerry in 2004, Klein is even tougher. Summing up Shrum’s history, Klein writes, “[T]here was a whiff of classic know-nothingism to Shrum-clone candidates–nativism, isolationism, protectionsm, paranoia. They played three-issue monte, and the issues were all domestic: jobs, health care and education.” (Notice, by the way, how Klein writes most of his analysis in the past tense–an obituary of the Democratic Party for the last 30 years, perhaps.)

Although Klein is hard on Democrats, he takes his shots at Republican strategists, too. Recounting the volatile relationship between Ronald Reagan and his on-again, off-again campaign manager John Sears, Klein blames Sears for everything that went wrong in ’76 and everything that almost went wrong in ’80. (He was fired on the day Reagan won the New Hampshire primary.) Sears was notorious for trying to keep bad news from Reagan, fearful the candidate wouldn’t know how to handle it. In doing so, Klein says, Sears failed to “let Reagan be Reagan,” a phrase that would become Reaganaut mantra. Permitted to be himself”to stop posing as a moderate–Reagan triumphed. (He’d never been entirely comfortable with Sears anyway, complaining that Sears always “looks me in the tie” and not the eye.)

Intriguingly, Klein also cites the Bush campaign of 1988 as a failure. “[T]he Bush 1988 campaign remains, to this day, best known in the political community as an example of how a brilliant group of political consultants could succeed with a candidate who was mediocre on his best days,” Klein says. “But the real lesson of What [consultant Lee] Atwater Wrought may be just the opposite: how difficult it is to succeed as president after you’ve campaigned as someone you’re not.”

I enjoyed many moments in this book. My favorite might be a scene in which the consultants Caddell, Shrum, David Doak, and Joe Trippi are all riding in a van with California Senator Alan Cranston. Prompted by Shrum’s remark that something is “the stupidest idea I ever heard,” Doak replies that Shrum’s ideas are “stupider.” Soon, four enormous egos are in a shouting match over who was stupidest. Imagining these supposedly sober-minded experts descending to infantile taunts, I can only wish I’d been a bug on the windshield. Sen. Cranston, for his part, turned pale.

Klein makes some strong points. He relates how Al Gore, whose best–and perhaps only–Turnip Day moment wound up being the “Twenty-Point Kiss” with Tipper at the Democratic Convention, chose to give a major speech on global warming and the environment after securing the nomination in 2000. Because Gore’s consultants felt such a speech would be unhelpful with swing voters, however, they refused to help publicize it. When it landed with a thud, the consultants used it as evidence to persuade Gore to lay off the environmental theme. Years later, Klein asks Tad Devine, a Gore consultant, whether Gore wouldn’t have been a better, warmer candidate if he’d been allowed to talk about issues he really cared about. Devine’s answer: “That’s an interesting thought.” Interesting, indeed.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean this book is as good as it could have been. I would have liked an explanation of how the rise of political consultants came about in the first place. The book would also have benefited from a mention of the effect of consultants on statewide and congressional elections, in which their influence is, arguably, far greater. (Ironically, presidential campaigns are where consultants are least important.) As it is, the book reads more like an extended column with a bit of history than a satisfactory examination of the problem, something Klein himself admits.

In part, Klein’s book is an attempt to explain to candidates how to tell good consultant advice from bad. In fact, Klein probably hopes this book becomes necessary reading for any future presidential candidate. (Klein holds up Reagan and Clinton as examples of candidates who properly used consultants, and Gore, the first President Bush, and, most egregiously, John Kerry, as examples of ones who didn’t.) But many of the examples cited in the book are of bad candidates who took bad consultant advice which, in turn, made them even worse candidates. The truth is, not all consultants are bad. In fact, I’d argue bad candidates are apt to seek out bad advice even from a good consultant.

At the end of the day, no matter how powerful consultants might become, they are people for hire. What Klein leaves unsaid is that some candidates might just be too weak or insecure to shun a consultant’s advice. Sure, consultants can be lousy, and Klein’s take on Shrum is particularly devastating. But John Kerry was hardly an ideal candidate, and he made plenty of bad choices without Shrum’s help.

Klein doesn’t offer solutions to the problems he cites, but he does seem to think voters would prefer a presidential candidate who won’t listen to them too closely–who won’t pore over polls or focus-group results. That idea is about as nave as they come, but that’s part of what I liked about the book. It’s good-natured, too. While Klein may be upset, he didn’t write an angry tome. In fact, he even likes many of the consultants he’s criticizing. He just thinks they’re ruining the scene. Skeptics might not be persuaded, but Klein makes sure they’ll at least be thoroughly entertained.

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