Sunday, February 24, 2008

Clinton and McCain advised by different branches of the same consulting company?

I was doing research today on Charlie Black -- the Senior Adviser to the McCain campaign who has been one of their key point people on managing the pushback on the Iseman affair (for example he was on Charlie Rose denouncing the NY Times on Thursday night). Charlie Black is chairman of BKSH & Associates a prominent lobbying firm in Washington D.C. Charlie Black is working for free for McCain (as if there ever is such a thing in politics) but also admitted that he has continued his lobbying practice literally from inside McCain's Straight Talk Express Bus.

So I went to the BKSH website to learn more about them and noticed a tab that said, "Integration with Burson-Marsteller." And I thought hmmm, that's interesting, because the President of Burson-Marsteller is Mark Penn who is Hillary Clinton's chief strategist. And sure enough, there on the BKSH website is a paragraph that reads:

BKSH & Associates Worldwide joined Burson-Marsteller in 1990. Since then, the BKSH offices in Washington, DC and Europe have worked closely with Burson-Marsteller, Penn, Schoen & Berland, Direct Impact, Marsteller and the Civitas Group. Our integrated methodology can solve a wide scope of public affairs issues with great breadth and depth.

So Clinton's campaign and McCain's campaign are basically advised by different branches of the same company!? How screwed up is that? What is even weirder is that Mark Penn is charging the Clinton campaign out the ass for his services (a reported $4.3 million so far for doing a terrible job) and Charlie Black is working for McCain for free. WTF?

I'm still trying to figure out what to make of all this. For Penn and Black it really isn't about principles is it, it's just about billable hours (Penn takes his now and Black is making an upfront investment in the hopes of a big payout later)? But in the end Burson-Marsteller wins either way, because they are playing both sides of the street? They just sell PR bullets to combatants -- they don't care who wins or who gets hurt along the way right? Moreover, they just want the fight to be as long and conflicted as possible -- so they can keep billing?

This whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It seems to me that if you really want to show that choosing a Democrat over a Republican will make a huge difference in people's lives -- DON'T HIRE A CONSULTING COMPANY THAT IS WORKING BOTH SIDES OF THE STREET! (Am I just being naive here?)

If Clinton loses this race it will largely be the result of Mark Penn's incompetence. If Hillary Clinton wants to turn this thing around, she needs to fire Mark Penn.

Update #1: Joe at Americablog posted a link to a must-read article in The Nation on Mark Penn that is really quite stunning.

Frank Rich today details the many failings of Mark Penn today in a NY Times piece entitled, "The Audacity of Hopelessness" (it's the #1 most e-mailed article on

Update #2: After Iowa, when it was clear that Obama had tapped into something deeper in the electorate -- it would have seemed that the smart move for Clinton would have been to go out and hire an inspiring speech writer (maybe Aaron Sorkin was available after Studio 60 got canceled). This speech writer could have tapped into these deeper themes and Clinton could have claimed to be both inspirational and pragmatic. Instead, she pursued a bizarre strategy of public seppuku by attacking Obama's appeals to hope, the Declaration of Independence, and MLK. Such a move doesn't make sense until you realize that Mark Penn simply does not believe there is such a thing as American culture or any broader themes. For Mark Penn it is all about micro-targeting. He sees a hopelessly fragmented America that only cares about very narrowly defined self-interest. So Clinton couldn't go out and hire an uplifting speech writer because her chief strategist does not believe a noble higher calling exists in the American psyche.

Furthermore, as a PR hack, Mark Penn really isn't that good at moving voters. He's really about moving elites -- he's good at moving a handful of key Congresspeople to vote a certain way -- and he usually has the option to just buy them off with campaign contributions. The American electorate is a much different animal.

Update #3: When the Republicans re-took control of Congress in 1994, they launched the K Street Project. The idea was to only work with lobbyists who were loyal to the Republican Party. From wikipedia:

Shortly after the 1994 elections which gave a majority of seats to Republican candidates, [Tom] DeLay called prominent Washington lobbyists into his office. He had pulled the public records of political contributions that they made to Democrats and Republicans. According to Texans for Public Justice, "he reminded them that Republicans were in charge and their political giving had better reflect that—or else. The "or else" was a threat to cut off access to the Republican House leadership."
Lobbyists were to give money only to Republicans and hire only Republican lobbyists. In the process, Republican lobbying firms would get rich (they were the only ones who had access after all) and they would enrich Republican campaign coffers through their donations. The goal of this revolving door of contributions and influence was to create a permanent Republican Majority in Washington, D.C.

Now we all know how that worked out... Republicans quickly became corrupted by the process and lost control of Congress in 2006. The new Democratic majority went back to business as usual -- working with firms that gave equally to both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats didn't want to lead an ideological crusade -- they just wanted to be the ones in a position to make the decisions in Washington.

But it seems to me that there was something fundamentally correct about the Republican approach which Democrats would do well to learn from. It seems to me that it is flat out bizarre for a Democrat like Hillary Clinton to hire a PR firm to help her advance Democratic health care issues -- only to have that same firm turn around and help Phillip Morris advance its pro-cancer business interests in Washington D.C. It leads to weird situations where Democrats try to advance a FISA bill that protects Americans from domestic spying and then Nancy Pelosi goes out and does a fund raiser for Al Wynn who is bought and paid for by the telecommunications companies who are trying to kill the very bill she is advancing.

I think Democrats in Washington D.C. would do well to start using an environmental and social filter in deciding which lobbying firms they will work with. It would be just like the filters that socially responsible investment funds use to screen out bad companies from their portfolios. For example, lobbyists who work for alcohol, tobacco, or any polluting industry would be denied access. Lobbyists who work to advance Democratic values and interests would be given preferred access. Call it the Main Street Project -- requiring that those who are given access return the favor by working to advance Democratic values in all aspects of their business. I know Democrats also value tolerance of different opinions but we can't be in the business of simultaneously working for and against our own interests.

No comments: