Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, was famously criticized for his ability to convince others to believe anything he said through a combination of hyperbole and bravado. One Apple employee called the effect a “reality distortion field” in 1981 and the term persisted ever since.
It’s quite clear by now that conservative philanthropists and grassroots donors have been living in a reality distortion field as well, the creation of a cadre of political consultants who have failed repeatedly at their jobs and yet manage not only to survive but thrive.
The ineffectiveness of television advertising and junk mail at actually changing people’s minds has been known for some time in academia and yet if I had to wager, I would bet that most conservative donors, small or large, have never even heard of any of the studies which have proven this.
The sad reality of conservative and libertarian politics is that the generous people who donate their hard-earned cash have been fleeced for years by greedy, incompetent people who have manipulated the system to profit regardless of the policy or electoral outcomes.
In order to prevent center-Right donors from seeing the failures and demanding changes, the Republican Industrial Complex has offered false theories that (depending on who is listening) “the Establishment” or “the far Right” are responsible instead of leaders who could not deliver.
While the GOP certainly has run poorer candidates on average than Democrats, the office-seekers themselves have not been the only problem. For years, Republican politicians and donors have been tricked not just into purchasing ineffective ads, they have also been tricked into paying ridiculous commissions on placing these ads, usually 15 percent. It is no wonder that the consultants have been so eager to convince donors to go for the quick fix of a political ad instead of investing in media outlets or building up grassroots organizations.
Despite the fact that the Mitt Romney campaign did not pay exorbitant commission rates, in the 2012 election the Republican Industrial Complex was a huge reason why he and other GOP candidates nationwide went down to defeat. In a February 2012 story, the New York Times revealed an intricate web of insider dealing where consultants were enriching themselves and their friends:
When Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign needs advice on direct mail strategies for reaching voters, it looks to TargetPoint Consulting. And when the independent “super PAC” supporting him needs voter research, it, too, goes to TargetPoint.
Sharing a consultant would seem to be an embodiment of coordination between a candidate and an independent group, something prohibited under federal law. But TargetPoint is just one of a handful of interconnected firms in the same office suite in Alexandria, Va., working for either the Romney campaign or the super PAC Restore Our Future.
Elsewhere in the same suite is WWP Strategies, whose co-founder is married to TargetPoint’s chief executive and works for the Romney campaign. Across the conference room is the Black Rock Group, whose co-founder—a top Romney campaign official in 2008—now helps run both Restore Our Future and American Crossroads, another independent group that spoke up in defense of Mr. Romney’s candidacy in January. Finally, there is Crossroads Media, a media placement firm that works for American Crossroads and other Republican groups.
Reacting to this report, former RedState.com editor Erick Erickson accurately described the situation as the GOP being “bled to death by charlatan consultants making millions off the party, its donors, and the grassroots.” He also provided more detail about how the Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee had effectively become the personal piggy banks of a select group of political insiders via two companies, FLS Connect and Targeted Victory:
During the Bush era, the Republican National Committee developed Voter Vault, a database used to identify and mobilize voters to the polls. At some point a partner at FLS Connect, Rich Beeson, went to work at the RNC as Political Director. Also, the RNC sold its Voter Vault data to FLS Connect and then leased that data back from FLS Connect. By the end of 2008 activists and others were complaining that the voter vault data was no longer very good.
Likewise, according to friends at the RNC at the time, Rich Beeson gave the RNC’s phone vendor contract to FLS Connect without bidding to others. The rate was not out of line, but it was a multi-million dollar contract to Rich Beeson’s former firm, FLS Connect.
Fast forward to 2012.
Rich Beeson moved from the RNC to the Romney Campaign as its Political Director. Jeff Larson moved from FLS Connect to the RNC.
FLS Connect continued to get business from the RNC and also got business from Team Romney. But now Targeted Victory enters the picture.
Targeted Victory, LLC’s principal office is the same office in St. Paul, MN that FLS Connect, LLC lists as its own principle office. Targeted Victory’s manager is Tony Feather, who is the F in FLS Connect.
Rich Beeson, who used to work for FLS Connect, is now with Team Romney and Team Romney awards a contract to Targeted Victory, LLC for its digital work with Zac Moffatt as Digital Director of the campaign.
After taking his post with Romney HQ, Moffatt proceeded to steer more than $96 million to his former company. Between RNC and Romney expenditures, the Targeted Victory-FLS Connect axis siphoned away more than $150 million from Republican donors. FLS Connect made off with $56.3 million.
Mitt Romney’s Beached ORCA
It should come as no surprise that the backroom deals that created the FLS Connect-Targeted Victory monopoly fostered incompetence as well. The best illustration of how insider dealing contributed to Romney’s loss is the campaign’s get-out-the-vote database system which it called ORCA.
The name was a playful reference to the Obama campaign’s database, Narwhal. Orca is another name for killer whale, the only known predator of the narwhal, another Arctic-dwelling cetacean. The Romney operation called its turnout database ORCA because it believed it had created a “killer app,” one that would enable it to surpass the detailed data operation that the Obama campaign had built up for the 2008 campaign.
With ORCA, the Romney campaign believed it would be able to know more about how the election was transpiring than anyone else.
“At 5 o’clock when the exit polls come out, we won’t pay attention to that,” Romney communications director Gail Gitcho boasted to PBS. “We will have had much more scientific information just based on the political operation we have set up.”
None of that proved true on Election Day. Despite the hype, ORCA was a complete and utter failure. Originally billed as “the world’s largest exit poll,” the volunteer coordination system was never tested on the large-scale computer system it was supposed to run on. Aside from a few people close to Targeted Victory, no one was even shown ORCA at all until right before Election Day. According to Romney volunteer John Ekhdahl, regular volunteers were not even able to familiarize themselves with ORCA until the morning of the election.
The situation was further exacerbated by the Romney operation’s apparent inability to comprehend that ORCA was not a smartphone application like Angry Birds but rather a website designed to be viewed on a smartphone. This created a massive confusion among volunteers who went desperately searching in the app stores of Apple, Google, and Microsoft unsuccessfully trying to find it. To make matters worse, the secured website that ORCA was operating under had no redirect functionality to assist people who had mistakenly reached the insecure version. As a result, according to Ekhdahl, many activists mistakenly believed the system had failed completely since their web browsers literally displayed nothing on the page when they attempted to view the default website.
Unfortunately for Romney, ORCA did actually crash just a few hours later as activists began inputting data about their local voting. This likely was because the website front-end of the database was powered by a single computer, not the half-dozen or more that serve content to high-volume database websites run by actual professionals. Had the Romney campaign been willing to listen to people with real-world experience in these matters, they would easily have realized this.
While Moffatt and others insisted afterward that ORCA continued to collect data, multiple reports suggest what the system did manage to collect was fundamentally wrong. “At the end of the day, they told us that every single swing state was looking either pink or red and the worst one was Virginia, where they were a little concerned,” one anonymous ORCA operator told Politico. “Of course, we know the opposite of that happened.” According to one Republican that Washington Examiner columnist Byron York spoke with, at 4 pm Eastern time, ORCA was predicting that Romney would win just under 300 electoral votes.
Whether it was because of corrupt data or an overly optimistic electorate model, there’s no doubt that ORCA got it wrong. Instead of being the “world’s largest exit poll” ORCA had turned into the Romney campaign’s biggest organizational disaster. Technology writer Daniel Tynan summed the debacle up well in a blog post for the enterprise computer publication InfoWorld:
“Everything in the ORCA rollout went great, except for a failure to do any quality assurance, proof its documentation, or beta test in the seven months from conception to implementation. Whoever was behind ORCA apparently also failed to hire a competent Web designer, anticipate server loads, beef up its bandwidth, or notify its ISP to expect a bump in traffic.”
Fleecing the Right
The corruption and incompetence that are pervasive throughout all wings of the American Right is something that receives almost no attention whatsoever from conservative media figures. Besides Erickson, it seems to be something that is ‘just not done.’
Given how enmeshed many corrupt Republican consultants are within the party’s more centrist ranks, it’s not exactly a surprise that moderate conservative writers haven’t criticized them much. Strangely, however, the more fire-breathing columnists have not been too interested, either. Besides generic condemnations against “The Establishment,” only columnist Ann Coulter has ever really gone after the many consultants who are terrible at doing their jobs but terrific at keeping them.
That is terribly unfortunate because the reality is that there are scores of Republican campaign consultants and candidates who are serial failures and yet somehow manage to keep getting hired.
This is in stark contrast to the Democratic Party where failure is treated far more harshly. Liberals who lose a big presidential race are rarely, if ever, heard from again.
Although Coulter is a poor strategist in her own right (she is a big booster of the nonsensical theory that somehow Republicans can win by getting only white Protestants to vote for them), she is completely correct that the Right has a much higher tolerance for failed leadership than the Left and that this is largely because conservatives do not know as much about politics:
The Republican Party has no natural defense mechanism against charlatans and saboteurs because politics is not what Republicans think about every second. Democrats love government. They spend their lives trying to maneuver themselves into a position to run other people’s lives. Republicans don’t want careers in government and give little thought to how to get there. Often they run for president only because they hope it will lead to more speaking gigs and TV appearances. […]
Anyone who hurts the Democrats’ electoral prospects is dead. Not so, the Republicans. If John Edwards, Ned Lamont, and Bill Bradley were Republicans, they’d have radio shows, TV gigs, and bestselling books.
What ever happened to Wesley Clark? Where’s Mike Gravel? Mike Huckabee has a TV show. If you want to know what the other former Republican presidential candidates are doing these days, just turn on the radio or TV. […]
No one gets rich by sabotaging the Democratic Party. But a lot of people get rich off losing races for the Republican Party. […]
There are no prizes in politics for caring the most, only for scoring the most. Devotion to the cause isn’t better than having a modicum of political savvy. If we’re serious about improving the country, we need candidates to be brutally honest about their own appeal. That’s if they really care about the team.
Underpants Gnome Conservatism
Besides the fact that many Republican poohbahs and advocacy group heads are double-dipping out of their organizations’ coffers, one of the other significant issues facing the Right is an apparent desire of many conservative leaders to merely preach to the choir about conservative policy ideas instead of actually trying to enact them.
Some have been more flagrant than others in proclaiming their desire to lose. Former U.S. senator Jim DeMint made himself famous by repeatedly claiming that “I’d rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in the principles of freedom than 60 who don’t believe in anything.” In 2010 as he celebrated the triumph Christine O’Donnell, his preferred GOP candidate for that year’s Senate race in Delaware, DeMint said that he wanted to start with the small minority of like-minded senators because he believed that “you’ve got to have at least 40 to start with who stand on principle. And if we can show America this election the clear contrast between the Pelosi-Reid-Obama agenda and more of a constitutionally limited government, if our candidates have that clear contrast, I think they’re going to win in every state.”
Needless to say, things didn’t quite go the way DeMint had hoped they would for O’Donnell. She ended up losing the race by more than 16 percent of the vote. He did, however, accomplish his larger goal of having fewer Republicans in the Senate since O’Donnell, a perennial vanity candidate, managed to defeat Delaware’s popular congressman Mike Castle, someone who was widely believed to be a shoo-in for the Senate seat.
The reality is that America has some areas that are more hospitable to the brand of Christian conservatism that DeMint espouses and some that are not. To suppose that a top-down, centrally planned campaign platform handed down by inside-the-Beltway interest groups is what’s best for every part of the country is monumental arrogance. It’s also a fundamental contradiction of the idea and practice of federalism, something conservatives are supposed to respect.
Federalism works because states are different from each other and some policies that work in one area might not work in another. That’s also true about candidates for political office.
Beyond the federalism, the idea that more conservative policies will happen as the result of fewer right-leaning legislators is positively asinine. It’s basically what might be called Underpants Gnome Conservatism.
For those who do not follow South Park, the Underpants Gnomes are a group of tiny trolls who steal human underwear in the hopes that they will earn a great financial profit by doing so. As they painstakingly tell Eric Cartman and his friends, their steps to obtaining money are really quite simple:
- Phase 1: Collect underpants
- Phase 2: ?
- Phase 3: Profit
Despite the boys’ repeated requests to learn what Phase 2 is, the gnomes are unable to do so because, as would be obvious to everyone, stealing underwear is never going to be a profitable endeavor and they don’t actually have a second step.
The idea that reducing the number of elected Republicans will somehow lead to more conservative policy achievements is about as logical as the cartoon gnomes’ business plan.
Are Conservatives Capitalists?
Despite the continual corruption and ineptitude of the Republican Industrial Complex, conservatives have reacted with far less outrage to this incompetent cronyism than they have toward the Obama Administration’s equally corrupt doling out of big bucks to politically connected “green” companies like Solyndra or Fisker.
Despite his numerous failures, Moffatt (who predictably went back to Targeted Victory) was not laughed out of politics like he should have been. Far from it. In March of 2013, U.S. News reported that the company had “more clients than they ever have before” including the RNC, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, Reclaim America PAC, Paul Ryan’s Prosperity PAC, and the Republican Jewish Coalition.
To add insult to Republican injury, Moffatt’s partner in failure, Rich Beeson, landed a spot working as the campaign manager for GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio. A few months into the job, he was accused of assaulting a top aide to one of Rubio’s rivals in a bar fight that provoked howls of derision from both inside and outside the Republican Party.
For all the mocking that conservatives gave to Bob Shrum, the perennial failure who managed the 2004 Kerry campaign and many other Democratic disappointments, the list of Republican consultants who continue to get paid millions despite their obvious incompetence is far too long. Here are just a few names:
- Mike Murphy is the quintessential example of a Republican consultant who should have been laughed out of politics long ago. He’s lost campaigns for John McCain, Rick Lazio, Christine Whitman, and Lamar Alexander. He also has the dubious distinction of running one of the most expensive losing state-level campaigns in history, the $177 million failure of Meg Whitman to win the California governor race in 2010. Then again, he probably didn’t mind the loss considering that he was siphoning $1.3 million a month from the organization.Murphy’s past failures did not seem to have harmed him as he was hired to run the political action committee backing Jeb Bush’s doomed-from-the-start bid for the Republican presidential nomination. As would be expected, Murphy managed to spend $130 million before Bush dropped out following his embarrassing loss in South Carolina. Since Bush received only 934,635 votes in three states before withdrawing, this means Murphy literally spent $1,374 for each vote the former Florida governor received.
- John Weaver is yet another failure who somehow continues getting work. His list of stinkers is huge, most notably his failed attempts to manage John McCain’s presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2007 (he was fired before any votes were cast). In 2012, he advised John Huntsman in his bid to get the GOP presidential nomination. His counsel to the Utah governor was his usual advice of encouraging Republican politicians to start attacking their own party while not offering any real alternative. Shockingly, it didn’t work. Like Murphy, his serial failures seem not to have impacted his ability to get work. In the 2016 cycle, he was the campaign manager for Ohio governor John Kasich’s quixotic presidential campaign which managed to win only his home state of Ohio.
- Ed Rollins—whose only real claim to fame is the 1984 Ronald Reagan campaign whose overall strategy was set by Mike Deaver and Jim Baker—has not won a single major campaign since 1993. He is the genius who brought America the failed campaigns of Ross Perot (1992), Katherine Harris for Senate (2006), Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign, and Michele Bachmann’s aborted presidential bid (2012). Thankfully for Republicans, this perennial loser was unable to find a mark in 2016. That didn’t stop him from glomming onto Donald Trump after he became the presumptive nominee, however. Like a nasty piece of gum that you just can’t get off your shoe, Rollins is running a super PAC supposedly intended to elect the billionaire businessman.
- If there is a single person to be blamed for the sudden implosion of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s 2016 presidential campaign it is campaign manager Rick Wiley, who managed to spend $7 million dollars in just 71 days, long before a single vote had ever been cast. Veteran campaign journalists marveled that Wiley was planning “elaborately staged” events at tiny Iowa towns and had hired more than 90 staffers. That Wiley would have such disastrous results was not exactly a surprise since his previous leadership positions on national campaigns also ended in failures as he worked with Mitt Romney in 2012 and was deputy national political director of the Rudy Giuliani campaign in 2008. He was very briefly brought aboard the Trump 2016 operation before the candidate got wise and fired him within two months.
- Though he’s often portrayed as some sort of expert on television, Steve Schmidt isn’t exactly someone who’s gone from success to success. In 1998, he was the communications director for a botched campaign against California senator Barbara Boxer. One year later, he held the same position for the dull and uninspiring presidential campaign of Lamar Alexander. He managed to help Arnold Schwarzenegger win re-election as governor of California but then returned to his losing ways in 2008 as he helmed the daily operations for the failed John McCain presidential campaign where he recommended Sarah Palin as the vice presidential candidate and thereby removed the strongest reason to vote against Barack Obama, who was at the time a junior senator from Illinois who had been in office for only two years.Yet instead of working to overcome his mistake, Schmidt launched an unprofessional private smear campaign against Palin which harmed McCain even more by undercutting his judgment in the press. Schmidt’s catastrophic mismanagement of the McCain campaign seems not to have harmed his ability to continue getting work, something that surprised New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney who couldn’t help but note that he “stands as evidence that there may be little cost to being associated with a losing campaign and a disastrous political misjudgment.”
Unfortunately, the reason that failed political operators keep getting hired is not merely due to their oleaginous charms. It is actually a much deeper problem. Even though the Right preaches the virtues of capitalism and competition, large portions of it are profoundly non-capitalistic.
Not only have corrupt consultants hijacked our political fund-raising operations for their personal enrichment, the Right has also become excessively dependent upon non-profit foundations and organizations to both fund and execute its operations. While there have been many such entities which have done admirable service to the pro-liberty movement, many others have been nothing more than money pits. Others formerly performed good service but have since been overrun with bean-counters who care far more about raising money than they do about accomplishing.
While it is possible that more quantifiable metrics could be created, very often, non-profits primarily offer donors emotional validation, not actual accomplishments.
New Blood Is Desperately Needed
Applying business metrics and thinking to politics is not the only thing that American conservatives could learn from the corporate world. Many companies routinely make it a point to keep their highest executive offices from having leadership that is excessively old. Such policies derive not from a motive to discriminate but from a desire to ensure that company leadership is young enough to be in touch with today’s consumers. A felicitous byproduct of such policies is that it enables younger people a chance for leadership.
The present conservative leadership structure is completely the opposite of this system. Instead of being led by people in their late 40s and early 50s, most large Right-leaning NGOs are run by people in their 60s and above. The campaign consultants who get hired at the highest levels are almost never younger than 50.
This doesn’t mean that all such organizations are poorly led but many are. One thing that’s almost a given: People in their 50s and upward probably are not the best media strategists considering how important the web is for those 40 and younger and how unimportant it is for older Americans. By way of example, there are several conservative leaders who actually think that the writing form now called blogging must always be about opining and never reporting the news. It is tremendously unfortunate that people who evince such an elementary understanding of media are actually deciding what and where conservative money should be spent.
Youth does not guarantee success of course but neither does experience. While an ideal political movement would strive to find a mix of the two, the fact is that the conservative movement leans far more toward the age than to innovation. This is a particularly sore spot for many young conservatives and libertarians currently working in the movement. I cannot tell you how many very talented leaders I have spoken with who have been repeatedly shut out of positions of real leadership within the pro-liberty movement.
The insularity and hostility to newcomers that is too common on the Right today is not only limited to those below a certain age, however. Since the “professional conservative” market no longer sustains itself via true openness and competition, those few who have managed to attain some measure of notoriety or financial independence cling much more fiercely to it than in days gone by when entrepreneurship on the Right was common.
Conservative radio pioneer Rush Limbaugh described the current situation in a revealing 2013 segment in which he described how he as a newcomer on the national stage in the early 1990s was warmly embraced by National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. According to Limbaugh, an innovator in the present-day would never be so well-received by those who currently rule the Right:
The first time I ever heard a story about Buckley commenting on me shortly after my program began (I think must have been three years into it, so would be 1991), the story was that Buckley was in some city making a speech. In the Q&A section of the speech, somebody asked him, “Have you heard this new guy on the radio, Rush Limbaugh? What do you think of him?”
I don’t remember verbatim Mr. Buckley’s answer, but it was in the vein of, “Yeah, let me take you here over to a corner where nobody can hear us. Yeah, I like him.” It was a classy way for Buckley to answer the question. I tell you, it’s so different today than it was back then. […]
There certainly wasn’t any broadcast national conservative media, and so here I storm in, and nobody knew who I was. I’d not networked. I had not gotten to know anybody. I’m just some guy on the radio that’s worked all over the country and got a break when I was in Sacramento, and then I end up in New York. Nobody had never heard of me. I had no achievements prior to this of note. There’s no reason they should have heard of me.
Then I come storming out of the gates, and I’m getting all this attention paid to me. Yet here these people have been in the so-called conservative movement for years, and they’re laboring away in the basements doing their research and writing, and if they’re fortunate, they get published. They’re not making a whole lot of money, and here I come, and Buckley embraced me. He brought me into his world to a degree.
That wouldn’t happen today. I guess it’s natural. It’s human nature. This is one of the reasons I value what happened so much. People say, “Rush, who’s gonna be the next you?” There won’t be one, but if there was—if out of the blue some really hotshot nobody ever heard of before conservative popped up—the rest of the conservative media would try to eat the person up and destroy them because it’s gotten so competitive now in conservative media.
That’s one of the things I always really consciously appreciated about Buckley was it wasn’t a competitive thing for him. He welcomed anybody into the so-called conservative movement, and if they needed a boost, he provided it to them, with whatever he could do. He had a lot of clout within certain areas, particularly in the highbrow literary conservative movement, lot of impact. If you had Buckley’s stamp of approval or imprimatur, that was a big, big deal.
These kind of things don’t happen now.
The general lack of openness to newcomers described by Limbaugh affected even Fox News Channel, an organization created by veteran Republican campaign operative Roger Ailes and paid for by billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch. According to John Moody, one of the senior executives who helped launch the network, when FNC was first starting off, Democrats on Capitol Hill were more willing to return booking request calls than Republicans were. Democrats eagerly accepted any slots offered by producers while their GOP counterparts in Congress and in the Bush Administration were reluctant to appear.
When Republican elites aren’t willing to give a new venture funded by Rupert Murdoch the time of day, you know something is terribly wrong with American conservatism.
That’s why it was deliciously ironic that the only candidate who was able to defeat the consultants was a man who was even better at spinning Republicans than they are. The alleged experts and their lucrative reality distortion powers were taken down by an orange loudmouth who has boasted repeatedly about his skill at lying.
The consultant class’s total inability to stop Trump or even take him seriously before it was too late is another proof that until the current crop of top-level GOP advisers is summarily banned from politics, there will be no hope for American conservatism.