Back when CNN’s “Crossfire” was at its height, the political consultant-pundit was a cable news staple. With the likes of James Carville and Paul Begala, consultants were turning electoral success into cable news airtime, and eventually into pseudo-careers as TV pundits.
The road from presidential campaign consultant to TV commentator went something like this: An operative would progress from work with lower-level campaigns to consulting on a presidential race, or would go to film school and develop an expertise in production. In either case, attaining the status of media consultant would eventually lead to TV appearances.
“Crossfire was really the breeding ground of a lot of this, back in the day,” says Democratic media consultant Tad Devine. “They had a forum five days a week, sometimes seven. They had all kinds of people on that show.”
But for a new generation of political consultants, many of whom appear to be actively shying away from the TV spotlight, the question is whether the consultant-pundit model is actually good for business.
The re-launch of “Crossfire” was announced last month, shortly after CNN hired GOP consultant Kevin Madden as one of the news network’s contributors. The show’s previous 20-plus-year run included Carville and Begala; this time around, it counts former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, broadcaster and pundit S.E. Cupp and lawyer-activist Van Jones among its four panelists.
Stephanie Cutter, a bona fide campaign veteran, fills out the roster. Cutter is a partner in Precision Strategies, which launched in May. Her enhanced profile on CNN could help the firm attract new clients—or not.
“Honestly, it’s a mixed bag,” says Devine. “You get this visibility and so people know who you are and that can be helpful in terms of getting in the door. But if the consultant becomes the story, it fractures the campaign.”
That presents a dilemma. The resurrection of “Crossfire” will create more TV opportunities for would-be pundits, but some consultants have mixed feelings at the prospect of more face time for their industry on the airwaves.
Many of today’s young consultants didn’t come through the ranks of the campaign world but rather emerged from Silicon Valley, the non-profit community or business school. They’ve rejected the notion of the “romantic war rooms,” precisely the place where TV careers were once launched. They handle press and publicity differently, preferring social media to three-minute cable hits.
“There is a generational disconnect in social media,” says Casey Phillips, a 32-year-old GOP media consultant with a growing Virginia-based firm. “If I can do a profile here or there, it sure makes my mom happy. But I still haven’t had someone call me and say, ‘Hey, I saw your name in Politico, I’d love for you to do my TV ads.’”
It’s about letting the work speak for itself, Phillips says.
“The longer that some of us are in the game, the more relationships we’ll build with reporters and the more we’ll become those guys who are being quoted in the major stories,” he says. “But as of right now, it’s to our advantage to keep our heads down and keep the stories on our candidates and continue to build those relationships until we have something to offer the narrative.”
Phillips, a gregarious South Dakotan, still makes himself accessible to reporters and is willing to offer his candid perspective in certain instances, something that he didn’t always feel comfortable doing. “It’s been a definite shift for me, because we were always so scared as staffers to be in the media, and then to make that sort of change doesn’t happen overnight,” he says.
Other former staffers are now venturing into the media spotlight, particularly after launching their own firms. Jeremy Bird, a long-time, tight lipped field strategist who worked for Obama’s campaign in 2012, recently launched 270 Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based firm with offices in San Francisco and Chicago. He’s since appeared on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” and become a regular quote for political reporters.
It’s a mixed blessing, having your opinions aired on television or in print media. On the one hand, it can help attract clients. But it can also generate animosity among your colleagues, some consultants say, which in turn runs the risk of losing a referral. There’s also the ever-present danger of putting your foot in your mouth.
“It can be hard, because producers want people who are willing to talk about anything,” says Kristen Soltis Anderson, vice president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm. “It makes their job easier, it makes the segment easier and there’s no shortage of people who will talk on anything, so it can be challenging to be more highly selective about what you do.”
Part of the reason she’s so selective, Soltis says, is the time factor. Appearing on television is time away from the office. In some cases, it’s a lot of time.
“A lot of folks who don’t do TV don’t realize how much time goes into one of those three-minute hits,” she says. “There’s the scheduling with the producer, and then they send you the topic and you send them your talking points. Then there’s the mechanics of getting to a studio, going through makeup, sitting in the chair, waiting, doing the segment, leaving, getting back to your office.”
For some consultants, it’s just not worth the time. Stuart Stevens, a Republican consultant with no shortage of a media profile, did only one TV appearance during the 2012 campaign, a Fox hit he says he was “ordered” into. Stevens is weary of the “cult of the consultant.”
“I tend to think that this is a bit like sports,” he says. “You are either still out in the field doing this year after year or you are in the booth talking about those who are still doing it.
“I elected to do the races and still feel that way,” says Stevens. “Television is just a different career.”
Sean J. Miller is a contributing editor to Campaigns & Elections magazine.