The Consultancy Racket

THE CONSULTANCY RACKET....A few years ago, in the January 2005 issue of the Monthly, Amy Sullivan helped highlight some of the systemic problems in Democratic circles with consultants. A few years later, the party seems to have learned a few lessons.

The most glaring problem is pretty straightforward. Democratic presidential candidates hire media advisors who wear a few too many hats -- consultants like Bob Shrum and Tad Devine have advised candidates on how to reach voters through media buys, but would also set up the media buys, guaranteeing additional income from commissions, on top of campaign fees. It's one of those conflict-of-interest dynamics that's so obvious, it's hard to understand how and why political leaders ever tolerated it in the first place.

Yesterday, the NYT noted the toll the problem took on John Kerry's 2004 campaign, which ultimately delivered nearly $9 million to five media strategists, described by the Times as "the richest payday for any Democratic media consultants" ever.

It appears that the leading Democratic candidates in this cycle have learned from their predecessors' mistakes.

The three leading Democrats â€" Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards â€" are all clamping down. They are following what has become an almost standard practice among Republican presidential nominees by paying their media advisers flat fees, or placing a cap on their payments, rather than making payments based on a percentage of the amount they pay television stations to broadcast their commercials. [...]Already, the shift in the way consultants are being paid is far-reaching. The old approach allowed the fees to shoot up with increases in advertising in hotly contested races. Critics say it also provided a built-in incentive for the consultants to run more ads â€" a concern that has led to infighting in many races.

In interviews, aides said Ms. Clinton, of New York, and Mr. Edwards, of North Carolina, had negotiated flat fees with their top consultants. And Mr. Obama, of Illinois, has capped what his consultants can earn, which will convert their more traditional percentage deal into a flat fee once his ad spending passes a certain threshold, his aides say.

"That is a startling change in the way major Democratic presidential candidates operate," said James A. Thurber, a professor at American University in Washington who has studied political consultants.


It's about time. Republican candidates have been running presidential campaigns this way for years; it's absurd that it's taken Dems so long to catch up.

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