It’s 2019, and the Democratic Party is finally starting to energize voters. Gone are calls for cutting Social Security or one-upping Republicans in games of tax-cutting or warmongering. In their place are transformational ideas like Medicare for All, universal childcare, and a Green New Deal. Democratic candidates and elected officials are finally hearing the needs and wishes of their supporters, and acting accordingly.
Now it’s time for those of us in the consulting field, who work to help elect these leaders, to follow suit.
While it’s not well-known outside the political class, many consultants who advise campaigns are often working for corporate clients at the same time—and all too frequently, these clients interests’ directly oppose the goals of any progressive coalition. Those working both sides of the street include some of the most senior aides from the Obama administration, and as well as advisers to both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns. From opposing progressive taxation to fighting for deregulation, working for corporate clients means pushing an agenda most progressives would consider a non-starter were it espoused by a political candidate.
Many progressives recently criticized Bill Burton, a top Democratic consultant and former Obama aide, for working on former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s independent presidential bid. Critics rightly worried that by helping Schultz direct massive resources against the Democratic nominee, Burton could swing the election over to Donald Trump. Besides, Schultz’s agenda of opposing higher taxes on multimillionaires or Medicare for All is a direct attack on the progressive movement.
However, to criticize Burton for working for Schultz while giving him and his previous firm, SKDK, a pass for advising and advancing corporate clients misses the larger picture. Why was it OK to push a conservative agenda for a corporation, but suddenly verboten to do so for a candidate? In both instances, the Democratic Party’s top talent is working to undermine the party’s progressive agenda. We can all do better.
Obviously, consultants have a right to make a living—and like the rest of America, there are consultants struggling with debt, housing costs, and medical expenses. I am also aware that some of us are more fortunate than others, and better positioned to make the difficult choices of choosing which clients to accept. I certainly don’t take for granted my own privilege, or consider myself perfect or blameless.
I’m not writing this to condemn my colleagues or point the finger. What I am doing is stating a goal for myself that I hope others will consider. Let’s change the way we do business, and agree from now on that working for corporations should no longer be business as usual for Democratic consultants.
Now, this may sound like a page out of Jerry Maguire’s mission statement: “The things we think but do not say.” But the fact is, these aren’t normal times. Solutions daring enough to solve the problems we face, like a Green New Deal, aren’t necessarily going to be “business-friendly,” and may not be endorsed by corporate America. Some consultants may—consciously or unconsciously—advise their candidates to take a softer stance on an issue because they can “see it from the business side of things.” How can we do that and even pretend to fight for the party’s bedrock principles of economic fairness, racial justice, environmental protection, and affordable health care for all?
“Consultant” is a vague label, but the truth is that many of us on the Democratic side are veteran campaign and government staffers who wanted to settle down and raise our families. We are some of the most experienced operatives in the Democratic Party, which is all the more reason that we need to change the way we do business.
If we really are the ones with the most experience in helping Democrats win, let’s use that experience to ensure that progressive Democrats win. Because for the next two years, there is nothing more important than promoting a progressive agenda, electing Democrats, and stopping Donald Trump.
I’ve been working in politics for over 20 years, on campaigns as well as in government. I’m proud of this work. But along every stop of my career, both in government and as a political adviser, the problems with the Democratic Party establishment have come into clearer focus: The establishment wants candidates who will support policies that preserve the status quo. For those of us who want progressive policies that are in fact overwhelmingly popular but stand in opposition to the status quo, it’s vital that we work for causes and candidates who are untethered to that establishment. There are progressive candidates at every level of government—from school board to president. We haven’t been invested in finding and electing them, but have found ourselves working for the established interests of corporations and the party.
For decades now, Democrats have been apologizing for our beliefs. We’ve bent over backward to and accommodate a Republican Party that has no interest in compromise, and we have settled for incremental gains instead of real victories. It’s time for progressives to be smarter, fight harder, and win on our own terms.
After all, if we want Democratic candidates to answer directly to the people they serve, we need to make sure that those advising them do the same. Let’s all get on the same program, and fight to reclaim the promise of this country for those who need it most.
The stakes have never been higher.