Sunday, July 30, 2006

Karl Rove's Comments on Consultants versus Journalists - food for thought

Yesterday, the bete noir of the left Karl Rove gave a commencement address to the George Washington University class graduating to become political operatives. GW has had a program for a number of years to train political managers. By all accounts the program is a strong one. Rove commented that journalists constantly harp on the corrosive role that political consultants have on the system but ignore their own role which seems to concentrate more on process than substance. He commented "There are some in politics who hold that voters are dumb, ill-informed and easily misled, that voters can be manipulated by a clever ad or a smart line." The problem that Rove raised is not a left or right problem - no side is better or worse at this than the other - indeed, both seem to be drawn into the kind of meaningless fights that betray the responsibility necessary for public service.

Like many political ads that consultants like Rove is responsible for, I think Rove is about half right. I started in political campaigns (at least where I was paid) at the dawning of the political consultant. The history of American politics is replete with a wide range of political operatives well before that time - but the real growth of political operatives came about a bit before or concurrently with Watergate. We added these consultants to guide political campaigns through the new environment.

Rove commented that it is"wrong to underestimate the intelligence of the American voter but easy to overestimate their interest." Although the public has a seemingly endless appetite for celebrity news (which is also mostly process not substance) the consequences of that coverage is not as dramatic. But the coverage we get for most political campaigns is about polls and he said/she said rather than the analytical questions that we should all be looking at. For the most part, I think voters are able to sift through this noise and make relatively intelligent choices. I suspect they would be even better if the media did a better job at covering the issues. That is part of the reason for the rise of the blogs.

So if all that is true where is Rove half wrong? I believe that the rise of the political consultant has in part been responsible for the journalistic miscoverage. Many consultants want to summarize their candidate into a soundbite. That is not the journalists although it may be a result of the configuration of news. The consultants have also been responsible for a good part of the increase in the cost of campaigns. (Again that is partially a result of the pricing that the media - especially the electronic media offers candidates.) Campaign consultants are a classic case of principal agent theory - they have increased the cost of their campaigns in part to cover some pretty expensive fees. The example we heard this spring about Congressman Doolittle's wife collecting a 15% commission from fund raising and then depositing it into their family account is only the most outrageous demonstration of that fact.

The first campaign I was paid to work on was a US Senate campaign in Vermont. I was working for a Senator named Winston Prouty. The cost of the campaign was about $250,000 - for both sides - in 1970 that was a lot of money for a state with fewer than 400,000 residents. We used a lot of media and so did our opponent. But we also did a lot of position statements and hand to hand campaigning. In October of that year I was driving with the Senator to the Burlington Rotary, we had scheduled a visit to some small hamlet which he had never lost (he had served in the Congress since 1950) - we talked him out of stopping and never got back to the campaign because the Rotary group had about 20 times to total members than the town. On election night we were in Newport, at his house. We had a teletype set up to review results. The results from the town came in and he lost it - he thought because he had not stopped by. We won the election but I never forgot that example. Some Vermonters wanted the free potholder that he handed out - but most wanted to see the cut of his jib.

On the other side, one of my tasks was writing "beepers." A beeper was a 30 second ad used on the radio that had a cutting edge. We changed them frequently. So me and his chief speech writer and our political consultant would sit in a bar in Montpelier and write these things with a good deal of scotch and a stopwatch. By the end of the campaign I was able to package a message to exactly 30 seconds - not 29 or 31.

With the advent of Watergate, every young journalist wanted to uncover the next scandal. I think that changed the way that political news was covered. At the same time we enacted rules and regulations to stop the supposed abuses that the Nixonians had committed (I say supposed because while there were some real abuses by the end of the cycle the media whipped up a frenzy that created an atmosphere that suggested that everything Nixon did was corrupt.) Nixon was a perfect candidate for this treatment. Many of his campaigns had been hard edged.

In California we got Proposition 9 - which supposedly required politicians and lobbyists to act honorably. In the end that law created a new bureaucracy and a lot of new reporting requirements but did not stop the potential for unhonorable people to act unhonorably (in the early 1990s the capitol was rocked with a series of petty scandals of bribes and influence peddling that sent a series of elected officials to jail.) Jerry Brown rode into the Governorship in part because of his championing the proposition.

In earlier times, including that first election I worked on, the substantive issues took precedent over the process. One of my tasks was to go visit the senior senator from Vermont, George Aiken, who spent a couple of hours explaining milk price supports when our opponent called for 100% parity. Aiken patiently explained to me that 100% would actually reduce the payments to Vermont farmers. We took that information back and then sent out a position paper which explained Hoff's folly. But what happened then seems for the most part to be no longer true.

So how do we get back to substance over process? There are a couple of common suggestions including public financing of campaigns and shortening the campaign season - which I believe are fundamentally unsound. Public financing would be designed to allow incumbents to rent seek - to design the requirements to their advantage. It seems impossible to shorten the campaign - based on the history in this country of exploratory committees and other devices that candidates would use to begin the process before the official date. Reducing the size of districts - to allow more people to know their representative would probably make the Congress even more unmanagable. Limiting the number of polls is also an unrealistic proposal - the limit were it possible would reduce the ability of the media to cover the horserace. In Mexico, polls are prohibited in the last week of the campaign - and that is not a bad idea. You could encourage more reporters to have a higher level of expertise and a bit less hairspray - and there are the occasional examples of that. Dan Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee seems to be constantly interested in covering the substance of politics and he does a very good job at that.

Sometimes ideas do win. The coordinated campaign called the the Contract for America was an example of an issue based campaign which was partially responsible for the GOP victory in 1994 - but I suspect there were other factors involved.

The blogosphere may well be a counterbalance to the process coverage of the news. There are all sorts of flavors of blogs and all levels of substance. As the change did after Watergate, the change toward more substance from the blog influence on politics may take some time to show up. One would hope it would be sooner than later.

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