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Published: Saturday, 8/18/2007

Consultants ensure politics won't be getting any prettier

WASHINGTON - It certainly would be nice to think that we're about to enter a new political era. But that's not going to happen.

As political consultant Karl Rove heads into the Texas sunset to write his memoirs and become even more wealthy, we are once more moved to consider how much we loathe and yet are fascinated by these men and women who are sultans of spin, purveyors of perception, masters of manipulation.

Just about everybody except President Bush had pretty well had it up to here with Mr. Rove, including many of his White House comrades, who often found themselves cowering under his sarcasm.

He was great on the campaign trail, but a little too Machiavellian when it came to changing Social Security, fooling around with Medicare, helping Katrina victims, and justifying the mess in Iraq.

Constantly counseling his boss to keep his dukes up and come out swinging, no matter what the issue, the man known variously as "the Architect," "Bush's brain" and "He Who Must Be Obeyed" finally wore out his welcome in Washington.

This weariness has happened before with such luminaries as Lee Atwater, the "bad boy" who ruled Republican politics for years and advised Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, and James "Ragin' Cajun" Carville - who helped propel Bill Clinton into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. - and his equally sharp-tongued wife, Mary Matalin, who has been whispering wellsprings of advice into Dick Cheney's ear.

So some figured that maybe during this new election cycle, the all-powerful consultants (the ones who get rich and famous off political campaigns while we voters grit our teeth) might have a diminished role. Hah!

If anything, the current candidates are even more fearful than their predecessors of making major decisions or changing a nuance without consulting a bevy of bona fide advisers.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) asked her cadre of consultants, most of whom helped her husband, what she should do about her passionate vote in support of Mr. Bush when he took the country to war in Iraq. The ones she listened to advised her not to apologize on grounds she would look weak as a woman interested in being commander in chief and that, eventually, outraged Democrats would come around.

Mitt Romney asked his people what he should do about his support of abortion rights and gay rights as governor of Massachusetts. The ones he listened to told him he had to move fervently to the right to have a chance at getting the Republican nomination and then mellow a bit in the general election, hoping voters wouldn't be all that distressed or confused.

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani asked his guys how to be seen as invincible after a bout with prostate cancer and multiple marriages. They suggested he jump on his 9/11 soapbox and never climb down.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) asked his folks how to be seen as a viable candidate and pull in oodles of boodle the second time around when, it seems, he is on board with the current President more often than he is out swimming on his own despite their harsh feelings about each other in 2000. They said - well, actually, they didn't have a good answer.

Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) consulted with his team about how to toss his hat in the ring when he, by Senate standards, is the new kid on the block. They informed him that his strategy was to claim he is the face of the future, the change agent, the antidote to boring has-beens (read: Hillary Clinton).

Mike Huckabee comes from the same Arkansas town (Hope) as Bill Clinton and became the Republican governor of that state a few years after Mr. Clinton was elected president. Mr. Huckabee was urged to play up his discipline. He lost more than 100 pounds and now campaigns ruthlessly for changes in our eating, exercise, and smoking habits. His people also said that as a virtually unknown celebrity, he should spend more time playing his guitar at county fairs.

Republican Fred Thompson, the not-yet candidate, had to figure out how to keep up the illusion that he's already been president and should get to keep the job because he's been on TV and in the movies so often as the Authority Figure. He was told to keep 'em guessing as long as possible, disdain to address the charge that he's lazy and did little as a senator from Tennessee, and show up at fund-raisers coast-to-coast while taking out temporary residency in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The most horrible advice, however, comes from all of the consultants. It is, basically, to "go negative."

Being thoughtful about the issues, and considerate and respectful of the other candidates (and of the President if you're a Democrat), does not cut it. Witness the increasingly personal jabs and gibes between Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton.

Despite our constant complaints about negative political attacks and those awful, relentless negative TV ads, the political consultants insist they are effective.

Hey, only 15 months to go!

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.

Contact her at: amcfeatters@hotmail.com



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