WASHINGTON — AMONG THE most striking developments in American politics over recent years has been the proliferation of "hired guns" -- the news media's deprecating but not altogether unwarranted name for professional political consultants. There are so many today -- campaign managers, pollsters, television advertising specialists, direct-mail fund-raisers and more -- that it is not exaggerating too much to call them a small army.
Many of the troops bivouacked over the weekend in Williamsburg to consider how best to deal with all the incoming flak they have been receiving about their role in the political wars. It's often said -- often by us -- that they have had a deleterious affect on politics, particularly as campaigning has turned increasingly negative.
As professionals, these hired guns have learned what works and what doesn't, and one of the lessons they have learned best is that negative advertising, chiefly on television, is the most cost-effective. Says one veteran consultant not especially known for "going negative," Republican Doug Bailey: "I can write a spot in 30-seconds and cause an opponent to lose votes. It takes longer to make the points it takes to win votes" (for a client).
But the problem of the consultants' poor image goes beyond the 30-second commercial. They are widely seen by a public that has turned apathetic toward politics as concerned only with winning. And as their business has become more and more lucrative and competitive, some unquestionably have yielded to excesses to win at any cost, always with an eye on their own campaign batting average, the better to attract more candidate-clients.
Much diminished in politics these days is the old trend of individuals getting into campaigns at the top levels out of personal commitment to a candidate, participating out of friendship or shared political dreams or ideology. Nowadays many professionals worship the ideology of victory, an attitude that can foster an "anything goes" approach to the campaign.
This is certainly not true of all consultants, and concern over such impressions triggered much discussion at the Williamsburg meeting about how the political consulting business can police its own excesses and in other ways improve its public face.
A Republican consultant, Paul Wilson, proposed that the business "implement rigorous standards of certification and follow through by instituting an ethical review process" as a means to "regain our reputation." But Wilson's plan would grant certification only after a consultant had demonstrated an ability to win elections, seeming to reinforce the emphasis on winning.
One of the problems that has come out of the growth in the political consulting business is that it has created the widespread impression -- sometimes valid, sometimes not -- that campaigns are now entirely in their hands, with candidates simply being led through the process on the consultants' short leashes. This impression, often used as a dodge for responsibility by candidates, ignores the fact that a candidate can always say no to any excessive tactic or television ad developed in his behalf.
At the same time, as Bailey points out, political campaign techniques have become so complicated that what goes on is well over the head of the average candidate. With the high prices consultants command, candidates are prone to listen to them -- especially when doing or saying something is justified with the one vital question: Do you want to win, or don't you? George Bush was confronted with that question in going negative against Bob Dole on taxes in the 1988 New Hampshire Republican primary, and Bush is president today and Dole is still the Senate minority leader.
The sponsoring group of the Williamsburg meeting, the American Association of Political Consultants, has been in business for 22 years and claims about 1,000 members. It already has a code of ethics that is acknowledged to be so weak that no candidate has ever complained to it about any member. If the objective is to have voters think more highly of political consultants, the first step probably is to get them to think more highly of the process in which the consultants are involved, and that will take some doing.
If the problem is negativism in campaigning, one clear solution remains -- two candidates who refuse to go negative and so instruct their hired guns. But as long as winning is the name of the game, for candidates and for the pros who work for them, the quest to find whatever it takes is likely to continue -- whether voters approve or not.