Like Walt Whitman, Jim Messina contradicts himself and contains multitudes. How else to explain why Messina — the campaign manager of President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and the chairman of his ongoing grass-roots lobbying operation — has taken a new gig as a consultant to the reelection campaign of David Cameron, Britain’s Tory prime minister?
There is one significant policy overlap between Obama and Cameron: Both support gay marriage. But the two leaders differ dramatically on other fundamental questions. Obama supports legalizing America’s undocumented immigrants, while Cameron’s Tories are attacking the illegal migrant population in Britain in an effort to keep xenophobic voters from shifting their support to another more right-wing party. More fundamentally, Cameron’s government has relentlessly slashed spending in the belief that the post-crash British economy could be brought back to health by a massive dose of austerity. Not surprisingly, unemployment continued to increase, and is still as high as it was in 2010. The Obama administration and congressional Democrats, in contrast, enacted the largest stimulus in U.S. history, blunted harsh Republican cutbacks and have seen the unemployment rate decline.
So Messina works for pro-immigrant and anti-austerity causes on this side of the Atlantic and for anti-immigrant and pro-austerity causes on the other.
There’s certainly nothing novel about U.S. political consultants working for parties and candidates in other nations. The United States boasts — or suffers under — the most costly, prolonged and technologically advanced election campaigns of any nation, and its topmost practitioners have worldwide cachet. Some consultants maintain a level of ideological consistency in their globe-trotting: Pollster Stan Greenberg, for instance, has worked for Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, the Labor Party’s Tony Blair and the German Social Democrats’ Gerhard Schroeder. Others consultants are less picky. Douglas Schoen polled for both Clinton and Silvio Berlusconi. (Whatever consistency that may reveal isn’t ideological.)
So why make an issue of Messina’s meandering? Isn’t it just illustrative of the proclivity of some consultants for high-dollar candidates?
There are two reasons why it’s more disquieting than the normal scramble for more clients. First, Messina isn’t just a consultant; he is also the chairman of Organizing for Action, which describes itself on its Web site as an “organization established to support President Obama in achieving enactment of the national agenda Americans voted for on Election Day 2012.” The site touts the necessity of investing public dollars in infrastructure and highlights the efforts of volunteers across the country to win passage of immigration reform. If Organizing for Action’s members had any say in the matter, they almost surely wouldn’t approve of the group’s chairman going to work for Britain’s anti-immigrant, anti-public investment prime minister. Indeed, if they had any say in the matter, they might ask Messina to choose between Obama’s agenda and Cameron’s. If he opted to keep working for Cameron, they might just opt for a less-conflicted leader. But as the structural continuation of Obama for America, the president’s official reelection campaign, Organizing for Action is no more controlled by its members than any other electoral campaign organization is controlled by its volunteers. If the organization’s leader spends part of his time opposing the president’s agenda in a land much like our own, there’s nothing the members can do about it.
The other disquieting aspect of Messina’s misalliance is that it reflects an emerging set of political beliefs among some younger Democratic Party leaders who have grown close to Wall Street, Silicon Valley or both — as Messina did while bringing both big money and technological wizardry to Obama’s reelection campaign. This umpteenth iteration of the New Democrats believes in such socially liberal causes as gay marriage but is skeptical of unions and appalled at economic populism. At times, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel exemplifies this breed of Democrat, but the group’s true poster child is Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who defended Wall Street during the 2012 controversy over Bain Capital’s plant closings (“stop attacking private equity,” he said on “Meet The Press”) and who has actually had a high-tech start-up personally bestowed on him by his Silicon Valley fans.
For Democrats such as these, Cameron’s Tories, in their support for gay marriage, their opposition to labor (and Labor) and their defense of big banks against the European Union’s efforts to regulate them, may look surprisingly simpatico. These synergies probably seem less apparent to the many thousands of Obama volunteers still active in Organizing for Action, but what do they matter? They can’t even keep their chairman from crossing the Atlantic to mock their beliefs.