Opinion

The GOP’s consultant problem

Photo of Morton Blackwell
Morton Blackwell
Founder, Leadership Institute
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      Morton Blackwell

      Morton Blackwell began in 1960 to identify, train and place bright young conservatives for activism in the public policy process. Founder of the Leadership Institute in 1979 and its president since then, Mr. Blackwell has wide experience in and out of government. In 1980, Mr. Blackwell organized the national youth effort for Ronald Reagan. He served for the first three years of the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the President for Public Liaison. While on the White House Staff, he was the President's liaison to conservative, veterans and religious groups. He also served as the Project Officer for the White House Outreach Working Group on Central America. In January 1984, Mr. Blackwell left the White House Staff to work full-time as the president of the Leadership Institute, his educational foundation dedicated to training and placing conservatives. Today Morton Blackwell continues to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative activists through the programs of his Leadership Institute, which now has more than 108,097 graduates of its training and more than 1,335 independent, conservative student groups active on college campuses in all 50 states.

By now, most of the consultant’s income does not come from election campaigns. But he continues to take some candidates as clients, partly to keep his valuable ties with incumbents and partly because there are in each election cycle some rich candidates and others able to raise big war chests. These war chests will be spent largely on campaign media, still a fine source of income for the consultant.

Not all successful consultants behave this way. But a great many do.

This growing problem with consultants has many bad effects:

● The unnecessary losses of many good candidates each year

● The looting of millions of dollars misspent on media

● The suckering of many rich candidates who are falsely led by consultants to believe they can win

● The increasing perception that campaigning is mostly mudslinging TV commercials

● Worst of all, the general decline of citizen participation as activists and, often, even as voters in the political process

Historically, volunteer participation in elections has been the greatest preparation for competent campaign management and good candidates in future elections. That source of new activists and candidates can dry up when campaigns focus on paid media and neglect grassroots organization.

Can grassroots activists do anything to limit the damage done by the increasing dominance of campaign consultants?

Certainly.

In the years leading up to the 1980 election, conservative organizations ran massive political education and training efforts. Activists were prepared by the thousands. That grassroots infrastructure-building should be vigorously resumed.

If you contribute to a candidate, you have the right to demand that his or her campaign give a healthy budget to people-oriented programs: precinct organizations, youth efforts, etc. These activities build grassroots infrastructure like no others.

If you are a donor to a conservative organization, you should demand that a substantial portion of its budget be spent on increasing the number and the effectiveness of its activists. If a group fails to do this, give to other groups instead.

If you are a donor to a party organization, demand that it spends your money, in part, on a serious program of political education and training. There is hardly any area of political technology which cannot be mastered by a willing local activist.

The winner in a political contest is ultimately determined by the number and the effectiveness of the activists and leaders on the respective sides — not their TV commercials.

Morton Blackwell is the founder of the Leadership Institute.