The Constant Consultant

Political consultants like Bob Shrum are easy to knock.

The chief strategist for the Gore and Kerry presidential campaigns can be viewed as a perpetuator of modern U.S. politics’ worst traits, having created over-scripted candidates who utter only bland, poll-tested, inoffensive talking points that do little to enlighten and inspire voters. Combine that with Shrum’s oft-noted 0-8 record in Democratic presidential campaigns, and he’s even easier to knock.

But a more complex view of Shrum emerges from interviews with some of his former clients, many of whom are discussed in his newly released memoir, “No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner.”

The pols Shrum actually helped win office, including dozens of senators, governors and big-city mayors, along with those who lost under his tutelage, point to him as an example, alternatively, about what is good and bad in political consulting and, by extension, American politics.

Shrum has often been criticized for having a cookie-cutter approach to politics that emphasized class warfare and other liberal mantras. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) recalled receiving this brand of advice in his bid for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Shrum parachuted into that campaign about seven weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

The political consultant’s firm created an ad that depicted Kerrey as a hockey goalie denouncing foreign imports and “protecting” American products against unfair competition from abroad. But the ad seemed to conflict with the candidate’s prior record as a supporter of free trade while he was Nebraska’s governor in the 1980s and then when he moved into the Senate. Kerrey endured waves of criticism for flip-flopping and soon dropped out of the race.

In an interview with The Politico, Kerrey said he regretted the ad and blamed himself for accepting bad advice. “The trade ad put a message out there that was at odds with my beliefs. That’s what got me in trouble.” 

And therein lies the problem with much of political consulting, said Kerrey, now president of the New School for Social Research in New York City. Outside help should be hired to explain and communicate core beliefs to voters, not to tell them what to believe.

Fifteen years later, even Shrum shares that sentiment.

“I don’t think you can invent the candidate. … A lot of them, for me, are heroes, but flawed heroes,” he said Friday at a reporters’ breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. And as much as folks like him offer political advice and instruction, “A candidate has to be willing to tell a consultant that he’s full of it.”

Despite the fact that Shrum’s advice didn’t work, Kerrey has kind words about the consultant.

“He helped elect a number of quite outstanding leaders to the United States Congress,” Kerrey said. “And his legacy will be his words,” citing the “dream shall never die” speech Shrum wrote for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) when he conceded his fight for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination at the party’s national convention.

Former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening said Shrum played a significant role in his tough 1998 reelection win. That year, Shrum was officially media director, but he worked on all facets of the campaign and was particularly helpful in debate preparation.

“I had a controversial first term as governor,” he said. That included fights with the Maryland legislature over gun control, gay rights and scores of other hot-button issues.

Then a month before the election Glendening criticized President Clinton’s behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, going as far as to cancel a joint appearance. This came during the frenzy over Clinton’s looming impeachment, and black voters, generally reliable upporters of the president, were outraged.

Shrum was instrumental in creating ads that resonated with the black voters, Glendening recalled, as well as helping him prepare for debates with his opponent, Ellen Sauerbrey. The governor ended up beating her a second time, 55 percent to 45 percent.

“Over the years, I have worked with many people, and he is one of the best,” said Glendening, who served as Prince George’s County executive for 12 years before being elected governor in 1994 for the first of two terms. “If I assembled a half-dozen political consultants and strategists that I have worked with at a table, I would definitely want him there.”