A “power broker” is someone who wields indirect political power, either by influencing the outcomes of elections or by exercising influence over key decision makers.
A power broker is not usually motivated by ideals, or by lofty policy goals. Rather, the term power broker suggests someone who accepts politics as an endless power struggle – and who knows how to get things done amid that struggle. A successful power broker has an enormous network of friends and allies and is constantly involved in deals and favors.
In 1998, the New York Times wrote a profile of Vernon Jordan, one of President Bill Clinton’s closest advisers. The piece, The President Under Fire: The Power Broker described Jordan as the ultimate people person:
Mr. Jordan has a good relationship with lots of people. His stock in trade is not a superior knowledge of torts or an ability to draft subtle briefs for the Supreme Court. Nor is he the man to turn to for a tenacious courtroom defense in a difficult case, like the late Edward Bennett Williams or Johnnie Cochran. It is worth noting that Mr. Clinton hired David E. Kendall and Robert S. Bennett to represent him in his various legal difficulties, not Mr. Jordan.
He readily acknowledges as much. Asked this week what his strengths as a lawyer were, he responded: ”I know people, all kinds, everywhere, and I can understand them.” He finds it easy to get people to believe in him.
The role of power broker is complex; a power broker may have a complex set of allegiances, rather than a simple relationship to one politician. During the Trump administration, the Washington Post published an article about Rudolph Giuliani, the one-time mayor of New York who served as a counselor to President Trump. The piece, titled “Inside Giuliani’s dual roles: Power-broker-for-hire and shadow foreign policy adviser,” suggested that Giuliani was operating as both an adviser to the president and as a general wheeler-dealer behind the scenes:
Giuliani’s previously unreported attempts to shape the pick for the U.S. envoy to Qatar are part of an unorthodox foreign policy portfolio he has carved out for himself while also working as a power-broker-for-hire with direct access to the president and top administration officials.
The role of power broker is often associated with men, but of course, it doesn’t have to be. The historians Barbara A. Perry and Alfred Reaves IV described Eleanor Roosevelt as the first female power broker:
Coincidentally, the first woman power broker in the Democratic Party reached the zenith of her influence at the very moment the label came into American usage. Eleanor Roosevelt certainly had been the most powerful First Lady in American history during her White House tenure from 1933 to 1945. After her husband’s death, she began to exert influence as the natural heir to his New Deal coalition, to which she added her more progressive postures on gender, race, labor policy, and community development. When FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, named her a member of the United States’ first delegation to the United Nations, she exercised her power brokerage on the world stage, eventually leading the drafting and adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.