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A Political Consultant's Tarnished Looking Glass

On my side of the one-way mirror, the political professionals drank mineral water, worked on laptops, and talked on their cell phones. It was late, people were tired, and the Chinese food wasn't very good. No one paid much attention to the focus group on the other side of the glass, except to make an occasional joke at their expense.

The famous pollster running the session was kidding around too, encouraging those in the group to let their hair down and share their gut feelings. I had read the pollster's report of an earlier round of testing. It contained such keen insights as:

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"Inform is a strong, positive word that resonates well."

"Voters want to hear about important issues in the 1998 election."

"The most effective mail features eye-catching graphics."

Meanwhile, the people paying for this wisdom went on raiding the refrigerator and cracking more jokes about the rubes they were watching.

All this jocularity belied the serious business at hand: picking specific themes and campaign messages for a get-out-the-vote effort in last week's election. I was one of many consultants whose work depended on what these "representative" citizens had to say. An advertising executive once told me why focus groups were so important to his clients - "It saves them from having to make a decision. They can always say, 'This one did better in testing.'"

On the other side of the glass, the focus group was discussing what was wrong with politics - it's all so cynical. My colleagues and I weren't doing much to prove them wrong. But if we could change places, I suspected the voters we were studying would learn something surprising about political professionals. We are actually a highly principled bunch - or at least most of us start out that way.

Here's a question which should test well in focus groups of political professionals: "Can working in politics help change the world?" Most of the people I've known in politics were inspired by political heroes and motivated by noble causes. I used to keep a "macro" in my computer that inserted my favorite Robert Kennedy quote into the work I did for clients:

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"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Now, I'm more likely to quote John Lennon: "The dream is over." And people like me are at fault. They say Washington is full of people who came to do good and stayed to do well. Term limits have been proposed for politicians - maybe we need term limits for political professionals and the press.

For too many political insiders, politics has become more of a game than a calling. Attack the other side and high fives - not to mention high fees - all around. For too many reporters, politics is a sewer and they're the guys with a flashlight. This atmosphere of cynicism and self-aggrandizement is poisoning politics.

Despite all this, every recent election has turned not on appeals to cynicism but on the "acts of courage and belief" of a relatively small group of voters. The issue of voter turnout is all about energizing a passionate corps of voters - whether they're fundamentalist Christians, African-Americans, "soccer moms," or angry Democrats. When they go into the voting booth, these groups are standing up for their most deeply held principles and beliefs.

When the process of politics becomes more newsworthy than the goals; and when profit overtakes principle among consultants, voters need a break. I'd like to see reporters take a pledge to stop quoting consultants, and consultants limit what they charge to do the people's business. But I'm just an old softy who quotes Bobby Kennedy.

* William Klein is a political consultant based in Silver Spring, Md.

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