How Inequality Hurts

Consulting for Fortunes

America’s elite political consultants are making millions off the political contributions of average Americans — and doing their best to keep their fellow millionaires happy.

By Sam Pizzigati

By Election Day this November, the Center for Responsive Politics reports, candidates for the White House will have raised and spent over $1 billion. But political campaigns today aren’t just expending mega millions. These campaigns are actually creating mega-million fortunes — for the political consultants who run them.

Presidential elections, notes the New York Times, “have become gold mines for the small and often swaggering band of media consultants who dominate modern campaigns.”

Gallup poll “Whoever wins the White House,” adds Salon’s Walter Shapiro, “an elite group of ad-makers, strategists, pollsters, direct-mail mavens, and fundraising arrangers will share the spoils of victory and the just as lucrative swag of defeat.”

Count Robert Shrum in that elite. In 2000, Shrum pocketed about $3 million in fees from the Gore campaign. In 2004, Shrum and his partners waltzed off with an estimated $6 million — and had their costs reimbursed — for producing ads for John Kerry.

The biggest consultant hired gun of the 2008 race: Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist and pollster until last month. He collected, before his exit, almost 9 percent of the $138 million the Clinton campaign had spent through February.

Penn has repeatedly claimed that his expenses justify his multimillion hauls. Penn surely does have expenses. But his political consulting career has just as surely not demanded much in the way of selfless personal sacrifice. In 2003, Penn, a consulting superstar since the Bill Clinton years, shelled out $5.1 million for a Georgetown mansion in Washington — and then invested another small fortune building an underground garage beneath it.

What do consultants actually do to make so much money? They certainly do not display much intellectual brilliance or originality, notes Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia researcher who has written widely on the impact of consultants on the political process.

“They’ve all worked on dozens of campaigns together,” explains Sabato. “They have formula campaigns, formula ads. They even transfer slogans.”

What consultants may lack in strategic originality they make up for in shameless profiteering. Top consultants typically take a cut — usually from 5 to 15 percent  — of whatever the candidate spends on the services they convince their candidate to buy.

“The more the candidate spends on TV advertising, the more the consultant cashes in,” as journalist Tim Dickinson explained earlier this month in Rolling Stone, “And that compensation is hidden from public scrutiny: Federal campaign reports reveal only what a campaign spends on ads, not how much the consultants skim off the top.”

Such fee arrangements can create real conflicts of interest. Tony Coelho, a long-time Democratic political insider, blames Al Gore’s 2000 defeat on consultants who insisted on running ever more TV ads when the campaign would have been far better served by funding grassroots outreach efforts.

The campaigns of this year’s two remaining Democratic Party candidates say they’re avoiding the consultant pay dynamics that have created these sorts of problems in the past. Both the Clinton and Obama camps are paying their consultants by flat fee, not as a percentage of what they spend to place their ads on TV.

But these flat fees, analyst Tim Dickinson points out, have been set so high that consultants are still reaping windfalls. If the Clinton campaign, for instance, were to end up spending $200 million on ads, consultants will pocket $9 million in fees, the same fee total that the Kerry campaign paid consultants in 2004.

In other words, notes a New York Times analysis, even with the new flat fees, “media consultants in both parties will continue to be paid handsomely for their work in the 2008 campaign.”

The flat fee “solution” to consultant profiteering also doesn’t get at the most serious “conflict of interest” problem with today’s elite political consultants: their class bias. Contemporary celebrity consultants don’t just steer candidates to expensive TV ads. They steer candidates away from policies and pitches that make America’s rich uncomfortable.

And this should be no surprise. Elite consultants like Mark Penn have become both personally rich themselves and the executives of media firms with beaucoup Fortune 500 corporate clients. Election after election, consultants with this class bias press candidates to shy away from any stance that might pose too specific a threat to America’s most wealthy.

The inevitable endproduct of this pressure: campaign drivel. Consultants, notes Rolling Stone’s Dickinson, “have made sure that the Democratic message comes across as little more than a fuzzy, focus-grouped drone about child tax credits, prescription-drug plans, and the “fight for working families.’”

The solution to all this?

“Forget what Shakespeare said,” quips the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato. “First, kill all the consultants.”

A more reasonable course? Try telling the candidates who get your contributions that you want to know how much consultants are skimming off the campaign expenditure top.

Better yet, tell the candidates who seek your contributions to tax the rich.

Political consultants will never ever whisper those three little words into any candidate’s ear. The rest of us need to make sure that candidates hear them..

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies.

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