Exporting America's Campaigner-in-Chief

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Barack Obama's 2012 campaign was without question the most complex and technologically sophisticated in history. That's true simply because the tools available to campaigns grow more advanced each year; the president's most recent campaign was able to understand and appeal to voters in more granular ways than the 2008 campaign did, and the 2008 campaign in turn did things the 2004 campaigns barely dreamt of. But it's also because the people who ran the Obama effort were better at their extremely difficult jobs than their Republican counterparts, just as they had been four years before (having a more skilled candidate didn't hurt, either).

So it wasn't a surprise to hear that Jim Messina, who ran the 2012 Obama campaign, has been hired to consult on the next British election, which won't take place until 2015. What did surprise some was that he'll be working for the Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron.

So does this make Messina a cynical mercenary devoid of any true beliefs? Does it subvert the image of Barack Obama and those who work for him as a group of idealists, bringing that hopey-changey to America? Or was that never true in the first place?

Messina would probably argue that he's working for a politician who in the United States would be considered a center-left Democrat. The days when Margaret Thatcher led the Tories in a quest to crush liberalism in all its forms are long past. While our Republican party has moved right, the Conservatives in Britain have moved left in some ways. Cameron just led a successful effort (against the wishes of most of his party, to be sure) to legalize same-sex marriage in England, and on issues like health care, the British right is to the left of the American left.

Okay, so that's a highly selective reading of Cameron's full ideology. Cameron also presided over the kind of austerity policies that Democrats have been fighting here at home, and when Messina gives the prime minister his wise counsel, he'll be helping to ensure that the Labor Party doesn't have the chance to enact its more liberal vision of where Britain should go. Cameron may not be Maggie Thatcher, but he's no liberal either. But politics is always relative; "Compared to what?" is the question behind every political choice. By working for one path, you're always working against another.

I have no idea what Jim Messina thinks about policy issues; maybe he genuinely believes that the Conservatives are better for Britain than Labor. Or maybe he has little opinion on the matter at all. Politics attracts true believers with only a narrow range of candidates they'd ever consider working for, it attracts people who only love it for the game and the glamour, and it attracts those who fall somewhere in between. There was never much reason to believe those who served Barack Obama were necessarily more pure and idealistic than other Democratic operatives. He certainly had more idealistic supporters, but it's the ones farther down the food chain—the field workers laboring through 16-hour days, the volunteers knocking doors and making calls—where the idealism was strongest. Those people were the ones inspired by Obama's speeches and driven to toil for a campaign for the first time in their lives. The higher you went up the campaign's hierarchy, the more likely you were to find people who had done this many times before, and might do it many times again, people for whom politics is a profession, not a calling.

Until a couple of years ago, Jim Messina was respected within political circles but unknown to almost anyone outside Washington (or Montana, where he got his start). But he has now joined a rarefied group. There are hundreds of political-consulting firms, but only a few that can get a foreign head of state to pay them the kind of spectacular fees Messina will no doubt be billing the Tories. And you can't completely blame him for cashing in. As campaign manager of the Obama re-election effort—an extraordinarily high-pressure position in which he commanded hundreds of employees and a budget of nearly $700 million—Messina was paid around $90,000 a year—a perfectly reasonable living, but a shadow of what you'd receive for something similar in the private sector. When you go from being a successful political professional to someone magazines write profiles about, the monthly fees surely become nearly impossible to resist.

Every candidate, from the most noble to the most depraved, asks a ridiculous amount from the people who come to work for him. The long hours, the low pay, the emotional investment—they're all demanded in measures unknown in most professions. That's why most people who stay in campaign politics beyond a few years become consultants, where they can make a nicer living, work for multiple clients, and even see their kids when they want to. If you meet someone who's been managing campaigns for 20 years, there's a fair chance he or she is a divorced chain-smoker with a sparsely-furnished apartment and a bleak outlook on life.

So the fact that Barack Obama's campaign manager is now working for the British Conservatives doesn't say anything one way or the other about Obama. It is a reminder, however, that this is one area in which we still lead the world. Just a few years ago, in most places running an "American-style" campaign with polls and television ads was considered almost unseemly, which made for great business for the few American consultants who could breeze in and show the locals how we do things in the big leagues. Though other countries are now producing their own campaign consultants, our elite operatives are still in high demand.

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