Good riddance, political consultants

If we can criminalize prostitution, why can't we outlaw political campaign consultants?

Maybe if we could, we wouldn't have had to endure those gawdawful campaign ads that crawled out from their minds' darkest recesses. If you're put off by the "negative tone" of a candidate's campaign, look first to the political consultant.

Candidates routinely put themselves in the hands of their political advisers and campaign consultants. Say this, don't say that, consultants tell the candidates. Here, memorize these talking points. Don't offend this group; make your appeal to this group. Spend more money on polling, on organizing, on ads. Wear this tie; wear no tie. Wear a bomber jacket today; wear a suit tomorrow.

Legions of spinners, publicists, fundraisers, social-media specialists, ad buyers, marketing mavens, on-the-ground organizers and investigators whose sole job is to dig up dirt on the opponent are deployed year-round.

It's a huge business. While the origin of every nickel contributed to a political campaign is minutely scrutinized, where that money goes rarely gets the same attention. A Huffington Post survey found that the top 150 consulting companies grossed $466 million in the 2011-12 campaign season up to June. No telling what the total is today.

Funny thing, the consultant gets to keep all that money whether his candidate wins or loses. Whether the advice was good or bad. Ultimately, the candidate is, or should be, in charge of his campaign strategy and tactics. And how well the candidate controls his consultant is a fair basis to form a judgment of the candidate's competency.

Let's take Mitt Romney. His campaign for the Republican nomination for president during the primaries was awful. He waffled, equivocated, dodged and weaved. All to try to appeal to the party's tea party conservative base. It was a strategy that opened Romney up in the general election to Democratic charges of flip-flopping and opportunism — certainly a legitimate criticism. Romney should have gone with his true self, and he has only himself to blame for this failure if he loses the election.

Romney's fault line appeared during a campaign. But Barack Obama's fault line showed itself during his presidency, where the consequences are much greater. I refer to the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were slain.

The more we know about the attack, the more apparent it is that the Obama administration was unprepared for it and ignored warnings. Even the Obama-friendly Washington Post editorial page noted that the increasingly embarrassing evidence should require that the administration answer some important questions about what is looking more like a "major security failure."

Yet, the Post called "pointless" the debate over whether the administration clung too long to the fiction that the attack was a spontaneous protest by Libyans outraged by a film trailer posted on YouTube that was insulting to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

Pointless? Hardly so. It's at the heart of my question about the influence of political consultants on candidates and public officials. The Obama administration's adherence for days and days to the absurd claim that a spontaneous crowd had combat arms, including mortars, close at hand for an unplanned attack was far-fetched in the extreme.

Why the administration would hew to this transparently dishonest line can only be explained by political considerations. There is no other logical or reasonable explanation. It would be a political mistake for Obama to admit that (1) the terrorist threat still existed, (2) the administration didn't recognize the threat and (3) didn't properly respond to it. Especially so close to a presidential election.

And especially when Obama had been taking so many bows after SEAL Team Six rid the world of Osama bin Laden, as if the president had personally ended the terrorist threat when Republican President George W. Bush, with all his wars, could not.

Faced with that interpretation, Obama got huffy, saying he takes "offense" that anyone would suggest that "we haven't tried to make sure that the American people knew as information was coming in what we believed happened …"

Swell. Is that his best defense?

This is my regular Tuesday op-ed column in the Chicago Tribune

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    Dennis Byrne

    Chicago Tribune contributing op-ed columnist and author of forthcoming historical novel, "Madness: The War of 1812." Reporter, editor and columnist for Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. Freelance writer and editor.

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