Shrum and Dumber: The Memoirs of a Political Consultant Who Knew How to Lose
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Reviewed: "No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner" by Bob Shrum -- a strategist and consultant to presidential candidates Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, John Kerry and many other Democrats.
Walking around Washington, D.C., telling people you're reading Bob Shrum's forthcoming memoir turns out to be a fantastic small-talk gambit. People are astounded, confused, sympathetic. Someone gave him a book deal? Who would read that? Who would buy it? Good questions, all. But none quite as good as the question of why Shrum wrote the book.
Not, it seems, because he has any particular point to make about campaigns and elections in America, the role of the political consultant in the contemporary Democratic Party, the future of progressive politics, or, indeed, much of anything at all. His tide of anecdotes will entertain anyone interested in horse-race politics and not averse to a little name-dropping (did you know Bob Shrum met Laurence Tribe before he was famous? and Bill Clinton? and James Carville? do you care?), but in his own retelling they add up to almost nothing. A lifetime working at the highest levels of political hackdom, and he's reached essentially no conclusions on any subject of interest -- or, if he has reached any, he seems disinclined to share them. Instead of a book making some point about the world, he's written what is, in effect, Shrum's last campaign -- a race to save his much-tattered reputation as a perennial loser, a man who's lost more presidential campaigns than anyone else alive.
No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner is the title, and the candidate does an admirable job of staying mostly on message, when one takes into account the considerable temptations to backslide. Rather than providing excuses, Shrum wants us to believe, in essence, that his reputation has been sullied unfairly by a cabal of unscrupulous, backbiting Clintonite centrists who have sought to trample him, the progressive standard-bearer who's been fighting for you, the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.
And, indeed, Shrum is fairly persuasive in arguing that his bad reputation largely is the result of the backbiting, unprincipled ways of the corrupt cabal of establishment political consultants. Unfortunately, the role of crusading outsider fits Shrum about as well as it fit Al Gore, as this voluminous account of his career makes perfectly clear. Rather, his assessments of political figures and policies are fundamentally grudge-based. The single most loathed figure in the book is Jimmy Carter, who had the temerity to win both the Democratic nomination and the White House after Shrum quit his campaign during a bleak stretch in the 1976 primaries. After Carter's victory, Shrum's career outlook looked bleak. Fortunately for him, Ted Kennedy was willing to give the young speechwriter a job based on his previous work for Ed Muskie and George McGovern, and he served the liberal lion well. A few years later, as a member of the inner circle, Shrum pushed hard in favor of Kennedy's 1980 primary challenge to the incumbent. To a remarkable extent, Shrum still appears to stand by absolutely every criticism the Kennedy campaign ever made of Carter -- that his Afghanistan policy risked plunging the world into nuclear war, and that wage and price controls were the solution to America's late-1970s economic woes -- and even tries to hold Carter responsible for the rise of al-Qaeda, though Osama bin Laden was but a college student during Carter's presidency.
Kennedy lost, of course, but kept his seat in the Senate. Carter, meanwhile, was shown the door by the voters in November, no doubt weakened in part by the need to fend off Kennedy's vigorous intraparty challenge. The resulting Reagan administration was a disaster for the poor and working-class Americans on whose behalf Shrum thinks of himself as toiling, but something of a boon for Shrum himself. With Carter in the White House he was, at best, a nobody who'd alienated the most important Democrats in town. With Carter gone, he was a speechwriter for the most famous Democrat in Congress -- and by most accounts a good one.
This is where the story gets both weird and all too typical. After working for years on Kennedy's staff, Shrum decided he wanted to become a political consultant.
The consultant's racket, especially on the Democratic side, is a good one to break into. Clients who lose wind up leaving office, losing power and stature. The D.C. power structure, meanwhile, is composed of winners, some of whose campaigns you probably worked for in the past. Even better, it's fairly rare for an incumbent to lose, so once you have some significant politicians in your Rolodex you don't need to be especially good at your job to rack up wins. Challengers who hire you and win are in your debt. Challengers who hire you and lose are yesterday's news. And challengers who want credibility with the big-dollar fundraisers and other party kingmakers need to demonstrate that credibility by hiring someone from the circle of established consultants.
It's nice work, if you can get it. And having a powerful senator like Kennedy in your corner is a good way to get it. Never mind that there's no reason to think a person well suited to the job of writing speeches for Kennedy's booming voice, outsize personal story and legacy, and passionate brand of politics would actually be good at a generic political strategist's job. The point, however, is not that Shrum was especially unqualified for his consultant's gig, but that his story stands in for that of his entire profession. Campaign operatives who succeed in any subfield reach for the prize of consultanthood, whether or not there's reason to think they'll be good at it. More to the point, once they reach that prize, it's extremely difficult to dislodge them from it.
Even better, it's well-compensated work. Democratic consultants are in the enviable position of both earning a percentage of their clients' ad buys and deciding how much money their clients spend on ads. This is an obviously absurd arrangement; it can hardly be expected to do anything but hurt the effectiveness of Democratic campaigns by building in a clear bias at the margin in favor of large television ad buys instead, as well as a bias at the margin in favor of fundraising against other possible campaign activities. This arrangement has been much criticized in the press (including this magazine) and in the progressive blogosphere, but has proven stubbornly resistant to change, itself a testament to the essentially monopolistic nature of the Democratic consulting trade. On the Republican side, by contrast, there is more competition and openness to new blood, and consultants get flat fees rather than a percentage. Shrum briefly addresses the controversy and dismisses the notion that Democratic consultants should ape their GOP counterparts by observing that Republicans can make up for lost earnings with corporate PR work.
But, of course, Democratic consultants also do corporate work on the side. What's more, altering the nature of consultants' compensation packages wouldn't necessarily entail paying them less money. In the first instance, the point of moving from a percentage-based fee to a flat fee would be to remove bias from the decision-making process, and cut down on wasteful ad spending, not wasteful consultant spending per se.
Be that as it may, once Shrum was safely ensconced in the ranks of consultantdom, his candidate roster showed no particular ideological profile, meandering from Bob Casey to Joe Biden to Dick Gephardt to, eventually, the 1992 presidential campaign of not-very-liberal Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey (of whom Shrum remarks, "I've never been sure what kind of president he would have been," which tends to undermine Shrum's claims to having been a conviction-driven political operative). After Kerrey's loss, Shrum is surprised to be locked out of Bill Clinton's general election campaign on the grounds that Hillary is upset by rumors that Shrum was gossiping with George McGovern about Bill's extracurricular sexual escapades. This Shrum seems to feel is a bum rap, though he does admit he passed on to McGovern an unsubstantiated secondhand rumor about Clinton hitting on Ron Brown's daughter.
Clinton and Shrum eventually patched things up to some extent, but Shrum's relationship with the White House remained tense, leading, eventually, to the pathetic spectacle of the 2000 presidential campaign. Gore, in what even in Shrum's telling looks like a fit of pique, hired Shrum, the major Democratic consultant least associated with Clinton, to run his campaign and provide him with an independent political profile -- even though nothing in Gore's political record suggested the existence of any important substantive disagreements with Clinton's approach. Next, in a fit of counter-pique, Clinton's political advisers embarked on a program of consistently trashing the Gore campaign every time it deviated from the political formula of 1996, and Shrum countered by declining to see any political upside whatsoever to Clinton's high job approval ratings and the general atmosphere of peace and prosperity. So consumed is Shrum by the quest for vindication in his struggles with Clinton's political team that he manages to recount the 2000 campaign without bothering to discuss Ralph Nader.
Tumble forward into 2004, where three of the four leading Democratic presidential contenders -- Gephardt, Kerry, and Edwards -- were all Shrum clients. What's more, on the most important moral and political issue of the day, they all broke the wrong way, supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Shrum concedes that he urged his clients to do this, going so far as to say that he prevailed upon Kerry and Edwards to opportunistically endorse a war they knew was wrong. Most astoundingly, he clearly regards this claim as something that will be helpful to the politicians in question, a misjudgment that would seem to speak volumes about the difficulty his clients have had in winning presidential elections. The "Shrum primary," in the end, went to Kerry over Edwards for reasons that go unexplained save for two facts: Kennedy advocated (but what did he say?) on Kerry's behalf, and Shrum set about the difficult task of winning an election dominated by national security in which one candidate was running as a supporter of a war that neither he nor his chief strategist thought was a good idea.
Here at last, the no-excuses mantra breaks down. "Democrats hated Bush so fiercely -- and 'hate' is the right word -- that they assumed Kerry should have beaten him easily," when in fact, Shrum says, running "in a 9/11 election against a wartime president who wrapped himself in that tragedy" was an objectively difficult proposition.
He, Shrum, fails to grapple with his own admission that the war vote was a mistake, for if voting in favor of the Iraq resolution was a political and substantive error in a race against "a wartime president" then it was surely a very big mistake. Similarly, to gloss the power of the flip-flop charge with the observation that Kerry "colossally misspoke on the $87 billion" is to essentially miss the point. Kerry marketed himself to Democratic primary voters explicitly as the candidate of political expediency, and got tagged in the general election as, well, the candidate of political expediency. Indeed, in retrospect what's shocking about the miscalculation on the war vote is less its simplistic nature -- the war authorizing resolution was high-profile and popular, so Shrum advised his clients to vote for it. But neither Kerry nor Edwards was in a tough 2002 reelection battle. It didn't matter whether or not the resolution was popular. A politician who took a stand against it would have two years to wait for events to vindicate his view. As, indeed, the skepticism about the war that Shrum attributes to Kerry and Edwards was vindicated by election day 2004. Which might have done them some good had they actually made the right call. The view that good policy is good politics sounds sappy and naive, but on this kind of issue it's true -- the first thing you need to ask yourself when trying to decide whether or not backing some invasion will be politically savvy is what you think will happen if the invasion actually takes place.
One could imagine situations where merits and political imperatives pull in opposite directions, but as a general matter substantive insight into foreign policy will be more useful -- even from a crassly political point of view -- than will the latest polling numbers. Nominally, Shrum agrees with this premise, observing that "if the party doesn't stand for something more than a set of poll-tested programs and a carefully engineered set of tactics to win office then we are likely to lose unless the Republicans hand us victory on a platter of indisputable failure or perceived economic crisis." This is offered, however, not in the spirit of self-critique, but as a slam on intraparty rivals: "And then what will we have to show for our power but time in office, modest or symbolic change, or achievements like the Clinton deficit reduction that don't stand the test of time?"
As with most of Shrum's critiques of his rivals, the statement is accurate but applies to him just as much as anyone else. Indeed, his clients seem no less likely than anyone else's to fall into the Democratic trap of getting on the right side of most issues and still losing the election.
A telling example is Shrum's recounting of how during the 2000 campaign "Gore was determined to give a blunt speech on global warming, and to do it in Michigan." Shrum and the rest of the staff talked Gore out of it, on the grounds that the issue "was a third rail in the automotive state of Michigan, a state we had to carry." And, indeed, such a speech almost certainly would have been unpopular in Michigan. On the other hand, voters with a direct financial interest in the issue were the people most likely already familiar with Gore's views, speech or no speech. What's more, Michigan wasn't strictly must-win -- if Gore had carried Florida, he wouldn't have needed it. Giving the speech could not only have put him over the top in Florida, it would have countered the public's image of Gore as a phony, dull, passionless calculating figure by letting him connect with the environmental issues on which he was a lifelong advocate. It would also have allowed Gore to skewer Bush where his record was most vulnerable. The speech could have helped Gore establish a persona distinct from Clinton's, without forcing Gore to distance himself from Clinton's accomplishments. And even if the polls didn't show voters yearning for a speech on global warming, it was clear that the voters were yearning for Gore to do something that seemed driven by convictions rather than polls.
The trouble is that a bolder political strategy would genuinely have left its architect with no excuses. A consultant who told Gore to give the speech would have had nothing to say in his defense except that he was wrong. A consultant who urges his clients to follow the polls can, after the loss, turn around and point to the polls attributing the defeat to the inevitable gaffes, the vagaries of unexpected events, the perfidy of the opposition -- to anything, that is, but the strategy. The strategy, after all, was backed up by data. So win or lose, the same consultants will live to run again in two years' time until, eventually, bored, they churn out a memoir complete with the requisite calls for bolder thinking.
Matthew Yglesias is an associate editor of the Atlantic.