Consultants' Ethics: Politics Survey Finds Attitude of 'Don't Blame Us'
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 1998; Page C02
If James Carville seems cunning, Dick Morris self-consumed and Ed Rollins brash, then these political consultants are running true to form.
A new survey of consultants portrays the men and women who run the nation's political campaigns as self-confident individuals who crave the "thrill" of a race, eagerly embrace scare tactics and negative advertising, but dismiss ethical questions as not their major worry.
The problem with politics today is not them, they say. It's skeptical reporters, the public and, yes, their own clients, the candidates.
With enough money, 40 percent of the consultants say, they can get voters to accept a weaker candidate. And 44 percent of them conceded they've been sorry about some of the people they helped win office.
Those are the central findings of a study, titled "Don't Blame Us," which the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and American University released yesterday. It is based on one of the first comprehensive surveys of political consultants ever conducted, and its findings stunned some of the people who produced it.
Democratic consultant Carville said the survey rang true. "We are part of the blame-someone-else culture in spades," he said. " . . . .The only thing we run is our mouths."
Republican Frank I. Luntz said he, too, agreed with some of the findings. "I think the biggest problem in politics today is the lack of substance," he said.
But Marla E. Romash and Robert Squier, Democratic consultants, dissented. "Certainly, there are some bad apples in the bunch, but I don't think that describes us," Romash said.
Squier added, "I don't think you can generalize about any group of people."
Republican Eddie Mahe, who said he could not accept the survey's findings, said: "It would be difficult to be more insulted."
James A. Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, said he was struck by the "logical inconsistencies" of what the consultants said. "They say they trust the voters, but think that the voters are poorly informed," he said.
The 200 consultants interviewed, half of whom were based in the Washington area, also offered "a mixed view at best" of the candidates they were pushing, Pew said. Slightly more than half of the consultants rated congressional candidates as excellent or good, 48 percent called them fair or poor and 42 percent believe the quality of candidates is falling, the study said.
The way the consultants see it, the candidate's message is all-important. "By a margin of three to one, political pros think that a weak message is a bigger barrier to electoral success than a weak campaigner," Pew said.
That, Kohut said, translates to a declaration from the consultants that "We can sell the soap. The quality of the suds is relatively unimportant."
When asked to define acceptable practices, one-fifth said trying to suppress voter turnout was acceptable and less than half called it clearly unethical. Virtually all agreed it was unethical to make statements that were factually untrue, but only 26 percent said it was unethical to use factually true statements out of context.
The consultants called for a code of ethics for their profession, but few believed it would have an impact on their own work or that of their peers.
Both Thurber and Kohut were struck at how readily the consultants dismissed calls for campaign reforms and voiced few concerns about their own roles in the election process. Most rejected suggestions for an end to so-called soft money, limiting spending by advocacy groups or public campaign financing. A slim majority expressed support for free television time for candidates.
What the consultants overwhelmingly agreed on was their dislike of the media. Nearly two-thirds blamed the news media for increasing voter criticism. Less than three in 10 said politicians' performance contributes greatly to the cynicism.
The survey found relatively few differences between Democratic and Republican consultants. The Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to link political fund-raising to cynicism, and the Democrats seemed more willing than Republicans to use scare tactics.
As for the consultants themselves, the survey found they were "disproportionately white, male and wealthy." More than half reported annual family incomes of more than $150,000, and one-third said they make $200,000 or more a year.
Three-fourths were described as under the age of 50 and less religious than the general public, and half had worked in the office of a federal, state or local official. Less than one-third had worked in the news media.
"These are people who are really comfortable with what they do irrespective of what other people are saying about them," said Kohut. "I'm not a political reformer, but this is an eye-opener."
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