If there was any villain at the just-completed Conservative Political Action Conference, it was the generic figure of the Republican political consultant. Overpaid, unprincipled, always on the lookout for the next client -- or easy mark -- the consultants, to listen to a number of CPAC speakers, have helped bring the Republican Party to its current low state.
Democratic consultant Pat Caddell got the ball rolling with his remarks at a CPAC session titled "Should We Shoot All the Consultants Now?"
"The Republican Party," Caddell said, "is in the grips of what I call the CLEC -- the consultant, lobbyist and establishment complex." Top party and campaign officials join hands in schemes to walk away with millions of dollars -- Caddell said it came close to criminal racketeering -- while the GOP suffers at the polls.
"In my party we play to win," the Democrat said. "We play for life and death. You people play for a different kind of agenda. ... Your party has no problem playing the Washington Generals to the Harlem Globetrotters."
Caddell's critique was echoed by other speakers throughout the conference, and from the meeting's main podium, the consultant class took hit after hit.
"Now is the time to furlough the consultants and tune out the pollsters!" said 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. "Send the focus groups home and toss the political scripts, because if we truly know what we believe, we don't need professionals to tell us!"
"We've had the establishment pick another loser for us," conservative legend Phyllis Schlafly said, referring to Mitt Romney. "The establishment has given us a whole series of losers. Bob Dole and John McCain. Mitt Romney."
The two non-candidates most mentioned in the consultant hall of shame were Karl Rove, the former Bush White House aide who has recently formed a group that he says will find more electable Republican candidates, and Stuart Stevens, the top adviser to the Romney campaign. Stevens, Pat Caddell said, "had as much business running a campaign as I do sprouting wings and flying out of this room."
And on and on. So here is a question: Not to defend the pocket-lining practices of some consultants, but do the qualities of consultants or do the qualities of candidates themselves determine the fate of campaigns? What major failing of the Romney campaign, for example, can be laid solely, or even for the most part, at the feet of the consultants rather than the man who hired them?
And in a larger sense, did consultants create the weak 2012 GOP primary field? Did they cause Mitch Daniels not to run? Did they cause Rick Perry to implode? Were they behind Rick Santorum's dogged march to success, and then his self-destruction over contraception, Catholicism and other cultural issues? Was any of that the work of a consultant?
Ask the same questions about 2008 and the McCain campaign. And in an even larger sense, did consultants cause the damage to the Republican -- and conservative -- cause that came from George W. Bush's eight years in office?
All of those developments were the exclusive creations of men who ran, or didn't run, for office, not the people they hired to manage their campaigns.
Take Stevens as an example, since he has been the subject of a lot of criticism lately. The list of clients whose campaigns he has worked on in the last 20 years, taken from his company's website, includes George W. Bush, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Sen. Rob Portman, Sen. John Cornyn, former Sen. Jon Kyl, Sen. Roy Blunt, Sen. Charles Grassley and many, many others.
Of course, Stevens worked for some losers -- Bob Dole is the most prominent. And he worked for some winners who can't be called conservatives -- former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist are examples. But looking at the records, talents and flaws of each of those candidates, it's impossible to claim that their fates were determined by a consultant.
In the end, some of Stevens' clients significantly advanced the Republican and conservative cause. Some didn't. But their achievements came from inside themselves, and not their consultant.
So yes, Republicans should look at the way they run their campaigns, and who they hire to do the work. But in the long run, winning candidates win and losers lose, regardless of who the consultant is.
A good candidate has deeply felt beliefs that guide how he runs -- and how he chooses and uses campaign help. At the moment, the Republican Party has far, far bigger problems than its consultant class.