There was a curious American dimension to this week’s British elections, but it wasn’t Republican vs. Democrat. It was Democrat vs. Democrat. One former top aide to President Obama, Jim Messina, advised Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservatives, while another top Obama aide, David Axelrod, advised Ed Miliband and the Labour Party.
Mr. Messina, or rather, Prime Minister Cameron, won. It wasn’t even close, despite election-eve polling to the contrary. Messina was first out of the block with a gloaty tweet at about 1 a.m. Eastern US time: “Things US&UK have in common: completely broken public polling & re-electing their strong leaders.”
Mr. Axelrod conceded about eight hours later, also on Twitter: “Congratulations to my friend @Messina2012 on his role in the resounding Conservative victory in Britain.”
This would all be so much water under London Bridge except for one thing: Messina is also working on behalf of Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic contender for United States president in 2016. He’s co-chair of Priorities USA Action, the outside group that is raising big money to support her campaign.
Some Democrats believe Messina’s work for the Tories is bad for the Democrats’ image. Last year, when Axelrod signed on with Labour, another Democratic strategist took the opportunity to slam Messina.
“Axelrod is trying to balance out the brand damage with what Messina is doing,” American pollster Stanley Greenberg, who also advises the British Labour Party, told The New York Times. “He seemed to enjoy that Messina would find it uncomfortable that they were doing this.”
Mr. Greenberg also said he thought Messina’s role with the Tories should “disqualify” him from working for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.
In Obama first’s term, Messina served as deputy chief of staff, and then managed Obama’s successful reelection campaign. There’s no word on how Obama or Clinton feels about Messina’s political “cross-dressing,” but in general, the White House declines to comment on the foreign clients taken on by former Obama aides. (Former Obama “body man” Reggie Love also helped the Conservatives with field and social media efforts, according to Politico.)
Messina points out that the two main US political parties aren’t exactly analogous to Labour and the Conservatives. In Britain, for example, publicly funded health care is a given, and Conservatives pledge to maintain it, not defund or eliminate it, as US Republicans say of the Affordable Care Act.
And in Obama’s world, Cameron is no mere foreign leader. The two are good friends. Cameron boasts that Obama sometimes calls him “bro,” according to the Daily Mail. At Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013, Cameron took part in the infamous selfie with Obama and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
Messina isn’t the first Obama adviser to work for Cameron. Obama’s former communications director Anita Dunn advised the Tories and Cameron in 2010 (and also faced criticism from fellow Democrats).
“Despite the drastic differences between British and American elections – U.K. elections have no television advertising, the dominant medium in U.S. campaigns, along with an openly partisan press and far less fundraising – Americans have long worked on both sides of the British aisle,” Politico notes. “A slew of advisers to President Bill Clinton worked for Prime Minister Tony Blair, often considered Clinton’s partner in liberal centrism.”
Perhaps all the lionizing (and demonizing) of Messina is a bit overblown. Just as in the US, where top presidential strategists – like Karl Rove for President George W. Bush or James Carville for President Clinton – are considered geniuses for “delivering victory” to their bosses, it may be that the candidates themselves deserve most of the credit.
In the end, these well-paid strategists are at times mercenaries, selling their services to the highest bidders – including, increasingly, corporate clients.
And if you’re Cameron, fighting in what seemed to be a tight battle for his political life, you don’t take any chances. You go with a winner. Who cares about political affiliation?