To Understand the DC Political Swamp, Look No Further Than Its Consultant Class

Democrats pledge to fight corporate interests while on the campaign trail, yet those interests are deeply embedded in the party’s networks and institutions. The political consulting industry is at the core of this conflict.

Jefrey Pollock (left), founding partner and president of Global Strategy Group, Eric Jaffe (center), head of research for North American Financial Services, and Frank Luntz (right), founder and chairman of Luntz Global, in a conversation on the 2016 presidential election hosted by New York Private Equity Network and Gerson Lehrman Group on October 6, 2016, in New York City. (Donald Bowers / Getty Images for GLG)

The election of liberal administrations in Washington in recent decades has followed a now familiar pattern. On the campaign trail, Democrats run to the left of how they actually govern: pledging programs and initiatives that become conspicuously marginal or absent even when the party wields unified control of the federal government. There are various explanations for this: organized opposition to these initiatives, particularly from corporate interests, being incredibly strong, and lax campaign finance laws giving tremendous latitude to those looking to defeat progressive legislation — to say nothing of the generally obstructive nature of America’s political institutions.

Still, the process of Democratic Party capitulation is often conceived in relatively straightforward and binary terms. Democratic leaders, so the theory goes, fundamentally want to carry out the agendas they campaign on but are persistently thwarted by a system that makes doing so incredibly difficult. Political campaigns, after all, require money and lots of it. And who has more money than an activist corporate sector that may otherwise align itself even more strongly with the Republican right?

The problem with this view of things is that it still implies there’s a clear division to be drawn between private special interests and public-spirited officials. The DC swamp, however, is more accurately thought of as an ecosystem in which the line between public and private is blurred and such distinctions are sometimes quite difficult to draw. Perhaps nothing underscores this reality more dramatically than the intermediary enterprise of political consulting, the subject of an extensive and revealing investigation recently published by the Intercept’s Alex Weatherhead.

One of Weatherhead’s central characters is Jefrey Pollock, founding partner and president of Global Strategy Group (GSG), a PR and research firm that worked with the nonprofit organization Time’s Up and later helped now-disgraced former New York governor Andrew Cuomo defend himself from allegations of sexual harassment. It’s merely a single case, but the anecdote effectively illustrates the fundamentally amoral nature of mainstream political consulting. As Weatherhead writes:

Working for both the premier #MeToo organization and one of the highest-profile #MeToo offenders goes beyond a mere conflict of interest. A political operative playing both roles has a considerable advantage, as they learn how to craft a message precisely calibrated to disarm the opposing side by embedding directly within it.

The Cuomo affair is just one example. GSG — one of just two companies that provide the lion’s share of Democratic research, public relations consulting, and polling — has offered its services to several Democratic senators from different wings of the party, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ed Markey of Massachusetts. White House press secretary Jen Psaki, meanwhile, was a senior vice president and managing director at the firm’s DC office roughly a decade ago.

At the same time, GSG boasts an extensive list of corporate clients — some of whom quite openly lobby and campaign against the progressive legislation many elected Democrats ostensibly champion. This includes, according to Weatherhead’s findings, a variety of oil, pharmaceutical, and tech companies, alongside financial industry behemoths ranging from Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase to Goldman Sachs.

Officially, of course, firms like GSG deny there’s a conflict of interest here. (In a response to the Intercept, Pollock said that the company “is proud to help elect Democrats up and down ballot and our work for each of our clients is confidential and independent of any other work we do.”) As Whitehead writes, arguments like this strain credulity given the divergent public goals of consultancies’ various clients. In any case, his investigation is a useful reminder that politics in DC often operates much more like a business than a public or social enterprise.

It’s hard to think of anything that illustrates this more vividly than a consultant class happy to work with both sides of major policy debates, often populated by people content to go back and forth between jobs staffing liberal politicians and lucrative gigs where they’re quite literally paid to help defeat liberal legislation. The dynamic is, for some, a highly profitable one. For ambitious Democratic politicians looking to shore up a progressive constituency while not alienating corporate interests too much, it can be awfully convenient as well.