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August 05, 2013 1:40 PM The Case For Jim Messina, Global Hired Gun—and a Rebuttal

By Ed Kilgore

In another look-back to last week’s blogging, you may recall that I wasn’t exactly jazzed by former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina’s decision to go to work for the British Conservative Party, on grounds that he was violating an unwritten rule similar to that which prohibits union-side labor lawyers from going to work for The Man.

In the pursuit of Equal Time, I’ll mention Paul Waldman’s take at TAP on Messina’s trans-Atlantic shape-shifting:

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.

Everything Paul says is true, but still: I sort of doubt that Messina’s choice was between the Tories or penury, who may well have made the best obscene offer for his services, but surely not the only one. In my view, whatever discount Messina might have had to accept to go to work for a political party that didn’t stand eternally for class privileges and presently for austerity could have been treated as a tariff imposed by the pieties he uttered every single day for many years as an operative and sometimes spokesperson for Democratic candidates. Yes, we all understand that “pros” don’t always believe what they say, just as we understand the prayers of many nominally religious people don’t ascend beyond their own bowed heads. But if hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, then a slightly less engorged income should be the tribute someone who makes a living in politics might pay in respect to the sincere convictions of the many thousands of people on “their side” who don’t earn a dime.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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