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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Sunday, January 16, 2005


Speaking Truth to Power Works

posted by Charles Bird at Sunday, January 16, 2005 permalink View blog reactions
In the January/February issue of Washington Monthly, Amy Sullivan wrote a devastating and eye-opening piece on Democratic consultants and their history of being rewarded for repeated failures.

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.
On January 12th, Bob Shrum announced his retirement, the New York Times reported.  I don't believe the timing of Shrum's announcement was a coincidence.  It makes me wonder what the political landscape would look like had Sullivan written this four years ago.  Erick Erickson, editor at, is a Republican consultant and he offered some insights into this strange world:

There are a few problems in the political consulting field and, unlike Ms. Sullivan, I think the problems extend across party lines, though I concede that the Dems are more pathetic than the Republicans on this front.

First, consultants like Hansen have an incestuous relationship with the party. Hansen is a field director for the DSCC. He is also a consultant who likes to do direct mail. When candidates show up at the DSCC, there is a nervous tension between Hansen as staffer and Hansen as consultant. Candidates are put in an awkward position if they do not want to use Hansen for direct mail. Political consultants and party staffers are not and should not be the same animal. It cuts out a needed layer of objectivity.

Second, consultants need to pick a field and, if they want to be a general consultant, they should refrain from engaging in other areas beyond ensuring strategy integrity. Bob Shrum, for example, likes to be a general consultant. Shrum's talents, however, focus on the media. Media consultants get paid a commission based on ad buys. General consultants get paid a salary. Shrum gets both because he acts as a general consultant and the media consultant. This cuts out a level of outside creativity.

Third, consultants need to know their place. Sullivan is right. There are too many political consultants on the Democratic side who have taken on a larger than life role: Carville, Begala, Shrum, Mellman, and (to a lesser extent) Trippi, to name a few. The media strokes their ego and candidates, based on the press driven biographies, pursue these consultants because of the connections they have. Consultants should be heard by their candidates and rarely, if ever, seen. The larger the consultant's profile, the more he works for himself and not for his candidate.


To solve their problem, Democrats should adopt some easy rules. First, party political staffers should only be party political staffers. Second, consultants should have a defined role and general consultants should not also be cutting the commercials, designing the mail, and talking to the press. Third, if a consultant has a string of failures, he should get bumped down to the minor league races for retraining. Lastly, Democrats, much more than Republicans, should work to devalue the system of consultant connections. Having the right consultant will always build natural alliances. But, picking a consultant should not be seen as the path to money. The consultant should be seen as the path to victory and those two paths are not the same.

Changing courses a little, Dan Gerstein was one of the few who named sources in Amy Sullivan's article, and he's lobbying strongly for Simon Rosenberg as chair of the DNC. I don't know much about the guy, but he can't be worse than McAuliffe. I also don't have a problem with Howard Dean as chair.

Changing courses yet again (sometimes you just go where the links take you), the other two main articles in the current Washington Monthly are also pretty good. While I'm clearly not on their side of the political aisle, I appreciate the candor and forthrightness of their writing (Drum included). One of the articles casts a wide net for possible 2008 presidential contenders, with one of the more intriguing choices being Bill Cosby. Hey, hey, hey, love to play tackle. Give them credit for creativity and imagination, but I think I'll pass on considering Queen Noor and Ted Turner. Their other main piece addresses the benefits of the Clear Skies initiative. A key nugget:

John Kerry summed up the conventional wisdom on the left during his second debate with President Bush by observing that Clear Skies is “one of those Orwellian names [sic]. . . . If they just left the Clean Air Act all alone the way it is today—no change—the air would be cleaner than it is if you passed the Clear Skies Act.” In fact, this oft-repeated green bromide turns out to be false. But the dispute over the bill's impact is only part of the story of how the perfect has become the enemy of the good in the clean air wars. The battle over Clear Skies has shaped up as a classic Washington tale of a creditable endeavor hopelessly mismanaged by its sponsor, demagogued by its opponents, and tainted from the start by the administration's well-earned reputation as handmaidens of industry. The resulting gridlock could delay attempts to clean up the environment and cost thousands of Americans their lives.

I hope Whitman's speaking truth to the environmental powers works just as well as Sullivan's to consultants. One other notion that Whitman advanced was the existence of a Thin Green Line:

The response of environmental advocates to Clear Skies is not altogether surprising, given the movement's loathing for Bush and his appointees, many of whom were drawn from the ranks of industry lobbyists. Yet for many years, green advocates have often shown a self-destructive intolerance for compromise. Many activists chastised Al Gore when he was vice president for his environmental record, though Gore was the most informed and committed environmentalist to ever fill the vice presidency. (In 1999, Time ran an article in its Earth Day issue with the headline “Is Al Gore a Hero or a Traitor?”) Ultimately, the environmental movement's intense pressure to hold ranks—call it the thin green line—precluded honest debate about Clear Skies.

Just one environmental organization, the Adirondack Council, testified in support of Clear Skies. For its efforts, the Adirondack Council was promptly named the “Clean Air Villain of the Month” in April 2002 by the Clean Air Trust, a hall of shame award ordinarily bestowed on big polluters and their industry-friendly lawmakers. The Clean Air Trust singled out the Adirondack Council for censure in part because it had “broken ranks with other environmental groups.” Yet the Adirondack Council was no industry shill. It had sued EPA to stiffen the agency's 1990 Acid Rain program guidelines, and testified before Congress that the timetable for Clear Skies' emission caps should be sped up. The non-profit favored Clear Skies because the bill mandated large reductions in the two primary pollutants contributing to the acid rain that had riddled the Adirondack Park. To other advocates, however, that was no excuse for dissent.

Seems like this is another example where the perfect has become the enemy of the good.


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.