Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Why Did The Democrats Do So Badly Last Night? It Goes Beyond Gerrymandering And Obama's Poor Ratings

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DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil will reap big rewards for his incredible string of abject failures yesterday

Guy Cecil, is the Executive Director of the DSCC. He wants to run the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. He-- and Harry Reid-- just cost the Democrats Tim Johnson's South Dakota Senate seat. Cecil recruited reactionary Blue Dog Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who South Dakota voters had rejected in 2010. They decided Herseth Sandlin's pleasant Beltway conservatism was exactly what South Dakota needed. They chased Johnson's son, Brendan, out of the race and handed the Democratic nomination to Herseth Sandlin, who was well aware she could never win a Democratic primary battle. But-- and it was a big but-- when Brendan Johnson bowed out, another progressive jumped in. Enter Rick Weiland. Herseth Sandlin stomped off and disappeared and Cecil flipped out. He and Reid decided to get even and refused to back Weiland, even after South Dakota Democrats rallied around him and made him their nominee. They closed the financial faucets and undercut him to a dull, lazy Beltway media, declaring South Dakota unwinnable. Cecil and Reid worked all cycle to make it unwinnable. Chatter is the Cecil, who just presided over the Senate catastrophe that Patty Murray completely avoided in 2012, will have a big position in the Hillary campaign. Makes perfect sense.

Right after the catastrophic 2010 midterms-- aka- The Great Blue Dog Apocalypse-- I worked with half a dozen congressional offices putting together an indictment of the corruption inherent in the way the DCCC does business. You should read it, if you haven't. It's all about the revolving door between the DCCC campaign operatives who get so many millions of dollars grassroots Democrats are suckered into contributing to the DCCC with all those annoying e-mails and the consulting companies they work for and own. At the time, I wasn't aware of Amy Sullivan's epic 2005 article for the Washington Weekly, Fire the Consultants-- Why Do Democrats Promote Campaign Advisors Who Lose Races? Sullivan focused in on the DSCC and I focused on the DCCC but the same disease afflicts both party committees. (Note: I don't care what diseases afflict the Republicans; I just hope whatever it is hurts them as badly as the Democrats are hurt by their consultant problems.)

I urge you to read the Sullivan piece in its entirety. Much of it is about Joe Hansen, a revolving door DSCC operative who is a partner in a very lucrative Beltway consulting firm. They get rich whether Democrats win or lose. Sullivan explains just how it works, although his own case, working for the DSCC and his own firm simultaneously, isn't the way its done anymore. The crooks are in one cycle and then back at their own firms the next and then back at the committee the next.
How does Hansen defend his performance and the seeming conflict between his roles as DSCC representative and private consultant? Not very aggressively. After I made numerous attempts over two weeks to get an interview with Hansen, he replied with a one-paragraph email, in which he listed the three victorious senatorial and three winning gubernatorial races that his company had worked on this fall, and concluded, redundantly, "Our firm has an unmatched record of success that no other firm can match." The email came from Hansen's DSCC account.

It's important to understand that even for experienced politicians--mayors, governors, representatives--a Senate run can be an intimidating challenge. It involves courting an entirely new world of donors by proving to Washington fundraisers and party leaders that you are a serious contender. Jeremy Wright, who served as the political director for Oregon Senate candidate Bill Bradbury's race in the spring and early summer of 2002, says that candidates are almost required to run two parallel campaigns, "one to get voters to vote for you and the other to get D.C. money by putting together the right consultants to show you're for real." For Democratic candidates in the few targeted races every cycle that are actually competitive, winning without the financial support of the DSCC (or its sister organization, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) is nearly impossible. While the candidates are grateful for the infusion of cash in the form of committee-sponsored polling, fliers, and commercials, the money comes with strings.

Officially, no favoritism exists. "We don't push one consultant over another," a DSCC spokeswoman told me. "It's more of an informational thing, telling candidates about good people who do a lot of Senate races." But Democrats who have worked on targeted races describe a reality in which they are strongly encouraged-- often with the reminder that precious funds hang in the balance-- to select recommended consultants. "The campaign was pretty paranoid about making sure the DSCC was backing us," explains one veteran of an unsuccessful 2002 Senate race. "We needed the cash. So of course, we were going to go with the consultants they recommended."

No one was in a better position to take advantage of this power relationship than Hansen. As the first man-on-the-ground, his contact with budding campaigns was early and often. "That person has a very large advantage in being able to shape the team," one of Hansen's consulting competitors told me. "You bond with the candidate from the get-go at a pretty stressful time when they're deciding whether to run and how to do it." Another Democrat who has worked with Hansen complains, "Joe is a pretty egregious example of a guy who is sent out as the official representative to help candidates plot their campaign plan, and then when he gets to direct mail, says, 'Oh, by the way, let me switch hats for a second-- I happen to do direct mail.'"

The situation puts candidates-- who are loath to alienate the campaign committee whose financial assistance they desperately need-- in a tricky spot. Even when working with experienced consultants, candidates need to retain some ability to disagree with a proposed idea or strategy. That's hard enough when the consultant is recommended by the party committee. But when the consultant actually is the party committee, the candidate's discretion stays sealed in a tight box. "It was an interesting dynamic, I'll say that," Wright says. "When Joe signed us up, he was on staff for the DSCC. We'd work on DS[CC] stuff during the day, and then he'd take us out to dinner and put on his consultant hat."

This Peters Principle effect of Democratic operatives rising--or muscling their way--up to the level of their incompetence, happens for a simple reason: The consultants are filling a vacuum. After all, someone has to formulate the message that a candidate can use to win the voters' support. Conservatives have spent 30 years and billions of dollars on think tanks and other organizations to develop a set of interlinked policies and language that individual Republican candidates and campaigns can adopt in plug-and-play fashion. Liberals are far behind in this message development game. Indeed, most Democratic elected officials have been running recently on warmed-up leftovers from the Clinton brain trust, ideas which were once innovative but are now far from fresh. With little else to go on, consultants-- many of whom came to prominence during the Clinton years-- have clung to old ideas and strategies like security blankets. "Democratic consultants are being asked to fill a role they're not suited to," says Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democratic Network, "to come up with ideas and electoral strategy in addition to media strategy."

Rosenberg hints at a second Democratic deficit: The party has no truly brilliant strategists in positions of power. Such talent is always rare in both parties and tends to come out of the political hinterlands, often as part of a winning presidential campaign team. Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign was waged by a crew of Georgia political operatives with the help of unconventional pollster Pat Caddell. Four years later, Reagan defeated Carter by relying on a California-based gang of professionals. James Carville and Paul Begala were largely unknown before they took Bill Clinton to the White House. And outside the South, the team of Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, and Mark McKinnon weren't much less obscure when they put together the strategy for George W. Bush's winning 2000 campaign.

Republicans have proven much more adept than Democrats at giving their best talent a national stage. While Democrats have permitted a Washington consultancy class to become comfortably entrenched, Republicans have effectively begun to pension off their own establishment. "The D.C. consultants for the GOP have their list of clients, but they're definitely on the outside looking in," Chuck Todd told me. "The Bush people have been very careful to give them work…but they're not in the inner circle." In 2004, seasoned Washington media strategist Alex Castellanos paid the bills with a handful of safe congressional races and a few unsuccessful primary challengers. Meanwhile, nearly every tight Senate race (North Carolina, Alaska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Florida) was handled by a Tampa-based firm, The Victory Group.

Republicans, of course, don't have any natural monopoly on strategic talent--they just give their best young strategists chances to run the biggest national races. In all likelihood, there is another Karl Rove or James Carville out in the Democratic hinterlands, who ought to be playing essential roles in the most important races. It might be David Axelrod in Chicago, who developed the media strategy for the then-unknown Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) primary campaign; West Coast strategists Paul Goodwin and Amy Simon, who helped Democrats regain the legislature in Washington state; or even unconventional D.C.-based consultants like Anna Bennett, the pollster who engineered Melissa Bean's upset of veteran Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.) in November. But any new talent will likely remain on the national margins-- running races for Congress and judgeships-- until someone breaks up the consultant oligarchy.

The electoral system takes care of dead weight when it comes to politicians. The proof is in the political wreckage evident after yet another year of Democratic defeats at the polls. Dick Gephardt--after 10 years at the helm of the Democratic minority in the House--has decided to go back home to Missouri. John Kerry is returning to the Senate instead of stretching out his legs in the Oval Office. The consultants, however, live on. After pocketing a $5-million paycheck following the election, Shrum is back from a vacation in Tuscany and now advising Sen. Jon Corzine's (D-N.J.) gubernatorial race. Mellman, whose advice helped sink Democrats for two consecutive campaign cycles, continues to line up clients. As for Hansen, his connection to Daschle may not help him now that the South Dakotan has vacated the Democratic leader's office. But don't cry for Joe Hansen--he's the consultant for incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
And, as I've pointed out before, other profit-for-staff-driven Democratic-allied organizations-- EMILY's List is the worst-- are just as bad as the DCCC and DSCC... if not worse. Although almost every Democratic woman candidate is petrified to speak publicly about EMILY's List's shenanigans, I've heard from candidate after candidate the same exact details for years. When EMILY's List "suggests" that the candidates they raise money for hire The New Media, Inc., not everyone is aware that that firm's president, Tierney Hunt, is the wife of EMILY's List Campaigns Director Jonathan Parker. The money EMILY's List demands cannot be spent on something useful-- like a field operation-- but must be wasted on a lame Beltway firm which is going to personally enrich an EMILY's List executive. It's how EMILY's List killed the campaigns this year of Alex Sink, Wendy Greuel, Eloise Reyes and several other women they led down the garden path. Several despairing candidates have said to me that they are forced to sit on the phone all day begging for money and that all the money winds up in the pockets of utterly worthless consultants they are forced to hire. And then they lose. We all lose, except the executives at EMILY's List and the crooked consultants they are enriching-- like Parker's wife.

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4 Comments:

At 9:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Simply can't wait to hear the selections for heads of DCCC & DSCC for what may be the last election in US history.

Can they outdo themselves in slime and pure (fellow) party member abuse?

John Puma

 
At 12:46 PM, Blogger erquirk said...

This is disgusting. After following pathetic Democratic election "strategy" and denouncing Democratic election "consultants" since becoming politically aware in 1992, I'm horrified by this BS. The example of what the DCCC did in New Hampshire this year, one of many awful - and intentional - decisions the DCCC made, has me fuming. WE NEED TO CHANGE THIS!

 
At 2:30 PM, Blogger CNYOrange said...

Um, last I checked Weiland was losing by something like 30 points. Reid is to blame for this? For the record I don't really like Reid but honestly I think you VASTLY over stated Weiland's chances.

 
At 8:37 AM, OpenID herlanderwalking said...

All I got from the DCCC this year was pleas for money and admonitions to vote Blue regardless of how I felt about what they had been doing.

I voted Blue, sent no money because I was busy supporting two jobless veteran sons, and swore a lot. Apparently a good many other Democratic voters were just pissed off enough to not even vote.

 

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