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In defense of political consultants

Which future political consultant used Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) as a punching bag on some long-ago playground?

Verbal attacks on consultants have long been a campaign staple. I remember a Democrat announcing his candidacy with a heated denunciation of consultants, delivered as he was flanked by his pollster and media consultant. (He didn’t win.)

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Daniels isn’t running, though, so one wonders what motivated a former hack to unleash a breathtaking diatribe against consultants. It’s worth deconstructing line by line — at least, it’s worth it to a consultant like me.

He begins his fusillade by labeling us “mercenaries,” “with no particular stake in any program of public improvement” — a characterization that betrays ignorance of either mercenaries, consultants or both. It’s true we work for money — as do tinkers, tailors, soldiers, spies and governors. Like lawyers, management consultants and engineers, we serve a number of clients over time, but unlike many of those professionals, almost none of us are for sale to the highest bidder. 

Like Daniels himself, we make no claim to asceticism, but most of us could make more doing something else or by choosing non-political clients over Daniels and his ilk. We don’t because, in diametric opposition to mercenaries, the consultants I know, on both sides of the aisle, are deeply committed to the candidates and causes on whose behalf they labor. Republicans and Democrats alike joined this profession to advance an agenda, to advocate a vision, to press positions that we think will create a good society. Daniels and I disagree about what constitutes a good society, but I can assure him I am no less committed to creating that society than he is. 

Indeed, my commitment, and that of my colleagues, to “particular program[s] of public improvement” compares quite favorably to that of Daniels’s friends. History suggests my commitment to a woman’s right to choose is more steadfast than Mitt Romney’s first pro-, then anti-choice, views. My commitment to Romney’s healthcare reform is demonstrably stronger than his own. I was committed to battling global warming before Newt Gingrich appeared in TV ads three years ago urging others to join the fight and while Gingrich was on TV taking up the cause. But my commitment has remained intact, even as Gingrich now denies the existence of global warming altogether. Daniels’s lecture on commitment might be better addressed elsewhere.

The governor goes on to recite a common anti-consultant canard: that consultants “tend to recommend negative tactics as the first and foremost element of any campaign.”

Like colleagues, I have done campaigns where I have recommended nothing but positive and others where my counsel has been mostly negative. After all, my role is to win — for my candidate, my cause, my country — and a negative ad is, in my view, a small price to pay to ensure that the middle class and the poor enjoy a decent life and the opportunity to succeed (someone of Daniels’s persuasion might say negative ads are a small price to pay to protect the rich from paying more taxes — and that’s what makes democracy interesting). 

But fundamentally, negative ads air because they work. If voters hated them, if voters really didn’t want to use the information contained in them, the electorate would vote against candidates who deploy such ads. They don’t. That’s because 30 years of research in psychology demonstrates that human beings process negative information more quickly and more deeply than positive information. Until Daniels is able to repeal that fact of psychological life, negative campaigns will be with us, whether they are created by professional consultants or bedroom-based videographers.

Gov. Daniels owes me nothing. But he probably does owe an apology to the consultants who helped him climb the high horse on which he seems to ride today. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).