by Jonathan Singer, Tue Dec 25, 2007 at 08:14:11 AM EST
A few years back, "West Wing" took on Democratic consultants and didn't hit too far off the mark (my favorite line being a consultant saying, "We're excited about the media buy!" a little under a minute and a half into the clip).
Today The New York Times' Christopher Drew reports on efforts, which seem somewhat though not entirely successful, to rein in the exorbitant fees consultants are charging their Democratic clients.
As a result, the Democratic presidential hopefuls are seeking to impose more controls on the consultants. In doing so, they are moving more into line with their Republican counterparts, who by and large have kept tighter rein on how they handle their media teams, which shape the candidates' messages, produce their television ads and buy the air time.
The three leading Democrats -- Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards -- 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.
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.
Over the years, the Democrats have tended to build their advertising teams around a few highly paid stars whose focus is politics, while the Republicans often spread their fees among a broad mix of political consultants and ad executives from Madison Avenue. Democrats have tended to pay slightly higher percentages of their advertising budgets in fees and commissions, but those small differences have often added up to millions of dollars in additional compensation.
In theory it's certainly a good idea for Democratic candidates -- and indeed for the progressive movement as a whole -- to slow spending towards the consultant class, particularly the "few highly paid stars" who take in much too large a share of the normal Democratic donor's dollar. Whether this goal is achieved in practice is another thing entirely, though.
For the life of me I can't figure out why the Obama campaign insists on maintaining the politics of the 1970s in this regard, particularly when it tries to position itself as an agent for change and innovation in politics. Where both the Clinton and Edwards campaigns have switched to flat fees, which have saved the Republicans millions of dollars in relation to the Democrats over the years, the Obama campaign for some reason will not make such a switch. What's more, because the campaign is being run by two consultants running much of the campaign's budget through their consulting firm, there remains the age old question of whether the campaign will be getting all of the bang for its buck or if the firm will just be milking every possible cent of profit. The campaign does say that because the percentage fee will eventually turn into a flat fee guards against this concern. Yet the fact that the campaign is entirely unwilling to be open, either about the percentage take of the firm or where the percentage is converted into a flat fee, leaves at least some questions unanswered.
It's worth noting, too, that the other campaigns aren't perfect, either, with for instance Clinton's consultants expected to make about the same amount as those of John Kerry in 2004 (though a somewhat smaller percentage of the overall haul of the campaign). However, the model for paying Joe Trippi in the Edwards campaign -- he and two associates contracted for $17,500 a month to make ads -- seems on its face to be closer to the type of deal campaigns should be making with their consultants (though, as with everything, the devil's in the details).
Anyway, here's to a New Year's wish that we can figure out a way for campaigns to stop consultants from siphoning off too much money.