Those who follow politics obsessively would be forgiven for thinking Rick Wilson is some kind of oracle. He’s everywhere these days, happy to offer an opinion on every angle of the not-yet race.
“The Clintons are on the back foot,” he declares in Politico, assessing Hillary’s handling of the controversy involving her e-mail account. “She’s blowing it.”
In the Boston Globe, he assures that GOP candidates need not fret about the same-sex marriage issue: “You’re not going to un-ring this bell.” In the New York Daily News, he observes that the donor class sang “freaking hallelujah” when Jeb Bush moved toward entering the race, and in this very paper, he declares that the electorate has no interest in foreign entanglements “until somebody punches us in the face.”
From what flows this man’s authority?
As a Florida-based consultant with four potential presidential candidates living in his state (yes, not just Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio but also Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson currently consider the Sunshine State home), Wilson is in high demand these days. We’ve come to that point in an election cycle where there still are no actual campaigns, yet the appetite for campaign stories has grown insatiable. Enter the quotable people who may or may not know what’s going on, but who can speak as experts for political stories.
“Void-keepers,” Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Donna Brazile calls them — and she’s been known to play that role herself. “They fill much needed space in the news vacuum.”
There’s a whole Hoover bag of them — folks such as Lanny Davis, Jerry Crawford and Philippe Reines for Clinton, or Republican operatives Tom Rath and John Sununu holding forth on how possible candidates are doing in New Hampshire.
Wilson is a dream for a reporter on deadline. He has worked in politics since 1988 (he was the Florida field director for George H.W. Bush back then), knows both Jeb Bush and Rubio well, and grasps the state’s political dynamics. More important, he’ll fill your good-quote quota. (For a profile I wrote last year about Charlie Crist, Wilson told me the former governor had the “intellectual horsepower of yogurt.”).
“I’m like Liam Neeson, with a very special set of skills,” said Wilson, who takes pride in having produced some of the most infamous television campaign ads — including one in 2002 linking then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a disabled Army veteran, to Osama bin Laden. That skill, essentially, is to not be dull.
“Every spokesman everywhere is putting out the same boring statement,” said Wilson, who once described a Republican politician as “chewing through staff like an industrial wood chipper” and also pondered on Twitter why people at Media Matters weren’t “getting curbstomped fortnightly.”
And in a time without much news to report, sometimes just a quote will suffice.
Why else, then, would former Bill Clinton aide Paul Begala be getting so many calls?
“It’s not like I have particular insight or knowledge,” Begala said of the reporters asking him about Hillary Clinton’s thinking. “We are suffering from news inflation: too many reporters chasing too few stories.”
Take the controversy about the personal e-mail account and server that Clinton used while she was secretary of state. “It’s a conundrum for the press,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic political consultant. “There isn’t a campaign to call about the e-mails, so reporters have to call someone like me or Paul Begala. Hopefully they find someone who is closer to her than I am.”
Wilson penned a GOP strategy memo on that very topic — the kind of thing that, in another era, might have been circulated among core campaign staffers but which he instead published in Politico Magazine. He called for Republicans to stop harping on the issue until they came up with a unified attack plan. Which brings us to a potential drawback of being a public voice: hate mail.
“I’ve got an avalanche of it,” Wilson said. Most accused him of being a phony Republican. Others encouraged him to kiss up to Bill Clinton. “Don’t they know I called him a ‘poxy, Viagra-stoked sexual predator’ on Twitter?” Wilson lamented.
Over e-mail, I asked Ana Navarro, another GOP Floridian with ties to Bush and Rubio, what it’s like to be an unofficial spokesperson for unofficial campaigns: How many journalists reach out to you about Jeb or Marco? “Too many.”
How many times have you given quotes for similar stories? “Too many.”
How did you end up getting quoted so much? “Being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Do you ever commiserate with other people in similar roles? “No. I drink.”
(Note: I once reached out to Navarro for a story about Rubio and Bush. She told me the topic was stupid, and then wrote me 800 words in response.)
Of course, there are many reasons for consultants to get their names out there: to boost their favored candidates, to get themselves considered for jobs. For Rick Wilson, this period of time — before there is a real campaign to join— is his playground.
“Now I’ve got latitude. Inside a campaign I will conform,” he said. Until then he can be whatever he wants to be. Which is who, exactly?
“I’d say Rick Wilson is a strange and acerbic character,” Wilson said. “He alternates between having a bleak view of humanity but gets inspired by a process that makes people so cynical. . . . Or maybe it’s just Rick Wilson is history’s greatest monster.”
Thanks, Rick. My good-quote quota is filled.