Jim Messina should resign from OFA

In mentioning a possible policy-based defense for Jim Messina’s consulting for the Tories, I forgot that he headed Organizing for Action. He should no longer be allowed to do so.

I would like to revise and extend my post from yesterday on Jim Messina.

In that post I argued that Messina’s working for the Obama campaign and then Britain’s Tories was understandable if one were looking simply at the policy space, but unforgivable if one sees partisan struggle as a fight between the wealthy and powerful and everyone else, or the Democratic Party as a vehicle for espousing moderation now and greater egalitarianism in the future. I still believe that.

But, ridiculous as it may sound and as a self-styled political junkie I take full blame I forgot one thing: Messina is not only the past manager of Obama’s campaign but the current chair of Organizing for Action. (Many of the other posts on Messina also omitted this, possibly because an outfit as ineffectual and unrelated to real organizing as OFA is easy to forget, but Hunter Walker’s piece reminded me.) This, in my view, cannot continue.

It’s fine, in fact laudable, for a policy expert in government to be “nonpartisan” meaning not free of ideology, which nobody is, but determined to work for the public interest rather than the narrow interest of one party vis-a-vis another. It’s fine, though rarer and not mandatory, for a policy expert outside of government to be the same way. It’s thirdly fine for a political commentator or blogger who never claimed to be easily classified in Left-Right terms -Keith, or Andrew Sullivan- to support Obama in the U.S. but Cameron in Britain. Finally, while I haven’t thought this through, it seems to me defensible for the manager of a center-left campaign in one country to advise a center-right party in another country if that’s where his or her policy commitments lead. This seems to me very different from the Dick Morris case of someone who indifferently advises the two opposing parties in the same country.

But someone who purports to be the leader of a party’s grassroots had better understand, and be prepared to practice, the thing that Max Weber said the leaders and followers of mass political parties “always and necessarily” must do: a fight. And the mass membership of a modern party will never fight for the sake of a specified level of public debt, but only for the less compromising reasons: loyalty to a side, and/or devotion to a larger and longer cause whose importance Messina demonstrably does not begin to grasp.

Messina can, barely, remain a political consultant to both our Democrats and Britain’s Conservatives. But grassroots Democrats will not, and should not, follow a supporter of the Tories into political battle. If Messina thinks we should, that’s all the more evidence that he’s unfit for his current job.

To campaign is to choose. Having taken the Tories’ shilling, Messina should resign from OFA. He will not lack for other work.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

25 thoughts on “Jim Messina should resign from OFA”

  1. “it seems to me defensible for the manager of a center-left campaign in one country to advise a center-right party in another country if that’s where his or her policy commitments lead”

    Well, Messina did work for Obama, the World’s Worst Negotiator. Stake out as your position the absolutely correct technocratic one, which is identical to what you regard as a reasonable compromise. The other side will surely agree to it, right? The added benefit is that you get to internalize the enemy’s point of view, and partly adopt it.

  2. The Tories may well be to the left of the US median on a large number of social issues, as well as not wanting to roll back established parts of the UK welfare state.

    What they do favor is protecting the UK’s many dependent tax havens and oversized financial industry. These policies, much more than UK social issues, have direct consequences in the USA.

    1. In all fairness, the UK’s outsized financial sector may just be a problem that is to be big for either party to solve (I am not disputing that financial lobbyists may have their talons sunk deeply into the Conservative party).

      If you look at the UK’s regional GDP distribution, you’ll notice that there are really only three high GDP centers: London (banks), Edinburgh (banks), and Aberdeen (oil). This is also why the Tories can’t afford to lose Scotland to independence, even though getting rid of a heavily left-leaning area would greatly improve their long-term electoral prospects (Scotland would hurt pretty badly, too, which is why the smart money is on independence not happening).

      But what it amounts to is that the banks have disproportionate political influence because they have disproportionate economic influence. Which is why even though currently David Cameron and George Osborne oppose a financial transaction tax, a Labour government might not have much of a choice, either.

    2. They’re also committed to moving the UK way, way to the right - slashing benefits for the sick, the halt, and the lame; jacking tuition way, way up; privatizing the postal service; reforms to the health service that to me are completely inexplicable and seem unworkable, but apparently have something to do with privatization and with a simple dislike of the institution; and then there’s the petty things, like the infamous “pasty tax” that would have been paid almost exclusively by the working- and lower-class Britons likely to patronize fast-food establishments. Also, as said above, doing little or nothing to rein in bankers, or the incredible UK laws regarding offshore tax shelters and so-called “non-doms”, rich folks who effectively live in the UK but pay no taxes anywhere. Heck, to make money in the short term the UK sold the building housing its tax revenue bureaucracy to a tax-sheltered entity in the channel islands, for a one-time windfall, and now leases it back at an exorbitant rate (tax free, because of the channel islands).

      Maybe the UK of Cameron’s dreams would still be to the left of the US; it’s hard to say, and the US is very, very right-wing in structure. But he’s trying mightily hard to swing the UK way to the right, enough so as to give the strong impression that he’s no friend even to the moderate Social Democracy envisioned by Obama-style centrists.

      1. I think the Italy of Benito Mussolini’s of dreams would still be well to the left of the US.

  3. This post might be right, but I can’t summon too much outrage. What has OFA ever backed that was actually very far left of center? The president is, in policy terms of the last 30 years of US history, a New England conservative. At best. On a good day. (Still think he’s a lovely human being, mostly.) Why would any of this be a surprise?

    1. Stipulating that Obama would scan as a New England conservative (a bit of an exaggeration), that doesn’t make him anything but a moderate liberal in national terms. Look at Jeffords: Vermont “Republican” turned nominal Independent indistinguishable from a normal Democrat-without changing his voting record much. Or Romney/Obamacare: “conservative” in Massachusetts, “government takeover” nationally. Politically speaking, the Northeast is a piece of Europe-one reason why people who’ve lived their whole lives there have to work hard, and read a lot about national politics, to avoid being completely unrealistic in what they expect their national leaders to do. They have the same problem in this respect as Southerners, who in many cases have never met a Democrat who isn’t oddly (and regionally) conservative.

      I agree that OFA has never been very far left of center. As I’ve written before, it’s designed as a national field operation (or, more simply, “machine”) for the Obama-led national Democratic party, and by its nature will never challenge the administration’s pragmatic, modestly reformist agenda. Still, it’s supposed to be a party operation and ought to be led by someone who inspires, and displays, unambiguous party loyalty.

      1. This seems a bit like arguing bleak expectations. Obama is disappointing, but so what, the best we can do is someone on the right of Nixon?

        To be clear, yes, in a fantasy matchup, yes, I would pick Nixon. At least what he did was illegal, and we got the EPA out of the deal.

        1. Nixon did some good: EPA, Clean Water, Medicare implementation, The War On Cancer (that last was a bust in terms of “ending cancer”, if any intelligent person believed that bit of hype, but made the US the undispited and not remotely challenged world leader of biological research for a generation - which is now slipping). But he did all that with a vastly different Congress (and I don’t know the history to know how much Nixon led on these issues, versus cooperated with Congressional influences).

          In terms of accomplishment versus context, you have to give Obama rather more credit than you seem inclined to.

          You’re also greatly underplaying Nixon’s crimes and misdemeanors. The 1968 fiddling with the Vietnam negotiations alone would be a moral blemish no person could hope to absolve (and it’s far from alone).

          1. Dick Nixon was a surprisingly good, liberal president at least in comparison to Obama (who is slightly to Nixon’s right) and the John Birch Society (which is the center of the Republican Party). Nixon had many achievements such as the ones you mention that today’s liberals would regard as simply unattainable. Of course, as I been saying, the trend of American politics during my lifetime has been to the hard right.

            If Nixon entered political life today with his same political philosophy, he would be in the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. As for the many instances in which he abused the power of the state to target his political enemies, well, it turns out that both political parties now embrace Nixon’s legal maxim that when the president does it, it’s not illegal. At least Nixon never claimed the absolute power to order political enemies indefinitely detained under horrific conditions in former KGB headquarters or even to have them killed based on secret evidence.

            On the other hand, I wouldn’t describe his intervention in the Vietnamese peace negotiations as a “moral blemish”. I would call it treason. LBJ should have had Nixon arrested, dragged in to a court of law and then hanged as a traitor (which, I believe, is the penalty for aiding the country’s enemies during a time of war). He lust for the presidency and his traitorous actions caused the deaths of many American soldiers. He should have hanged.

          2. I’m sorry, I completely disagree. Even leaving aside the (really quite important!) question of context, and the Congresses they had to work with, there are huge, important differences. This is true at home: failing to rein in misguided and broad anti-terrorism activities by the NSA is not the same as bugging the headquarters of the opposition party, ordering IRS audits and wiretaps on dozens of journalists and (peaceful) activists, even housing conspiracies to imprison or kill critics. This is true at home: Obama has not been a peacenik, but he has restrained our military compared to what preceded him and the people who hectored him: we are out of Iraq, we are trying to inch out of Afghanistan, we didn’t go into Libya heavy nor Syria at all; compare this to the escalation in Vietnam and what happened to Laos and Cambodia. More to the point, Obama’s foreign policy may not have been dewy eyed idealism, but he also hasn’t gone out o his way to create or embrace monsters (Pinochet, Suharto). Nixon’s entire foreign policy would be an unrelenting stream of blood, oppression, and despair were it not for China - and remember, only Nixon could go to China because Nixon and his ilk wouldn’t have let anyone else do it.

            Obama hasn’t been a liberal titan. He has been a good Centrist Democrat - a good social Democrat. He has been so by the standards of any Democratic President or candidate in the last forty years - realistically, he’s to the left of every other Democratic President since the Civil War other than LBJ (Vietnam and more broadly the cold war excepted) and FDR (maybe Truman, for whom I can’t really think of any accomplishments or indeed actions other than desegregating the military, fighting a war in Korea, and - critically - firing MacArthur). Look at the alternatives: Clinton “reformed” welfare and deregulated the banks; Carter was a fairly typical Southern Democrat; Kennedy was a cold warrior with no domestic accomplishments.

          3. I’m glad we are actually discussing Nixon v. Obama. That, at least, is somewhat useful.

            If you wish to talk about things we would have considered crime a bit more than a decade ago, I’m on board. Otherwise, you are agreeing with me.

          4. I suspect you don’t know the reality of the wikileaks, et al. I am willing to be wrong. I am also willing to assume that Obama’s machine isn’t worse than any other would have been. This is not an endorsement.

          5. This is a reply to Warren: you know, I usually agree with you on most things, but I see this administration a bit differently. Perhaps I overestimate the degree of control the president has even over the executive branch? Scary but possible. But, given what’s happened with national security and even with just deportations, I find it rather hard to say that what Nixon did was so much worse. (I am pretty ignorant about ‘Nam though. I gather, he and Kissinger delayed peace so they could win an election? I agree that that is/would be/should be a crime. Kissinger, isn’t he still around, btw?) Nixon was terrible to a few specific individuals. Now, it seems to me, there are some rather large scale unconstitutional activities happening, and, I don’t think we even know most of them yet.

            I’d like to be wrong, but, I guess we’ll have to see.

      2. Obviously, one of the expected costs of selecting a man of the centre-right with a strong commitment to neo-liberalism to lead a party of the centre-left is that he will tend to select people of a similar stripe to serve in his administration and, inevitably, will move the entire party further towards the right. I share your unhappiness but this was perfectly predictable once it was no longer necessary for Obama and his closest associates to “pander” to the centre-left majority of the Democratic Party. I think we’re stuck with people like Obama until we can find a way to change the Republican Party and move it closer to the centre.

    2. I’ve been living in NH for over a decade now, and based on my experience with local politicians, I cannot see any resemblance between Obama and New England conservatives. Our wackos are just as wacky as any outside of TX.

      1. I think when he says “New England Conservatives” he means Henry Cabot Lodge, not the latest tea party firebreathing “Live Free Of Die” nutter from the woods of New Hampster.

  4. I agree with everything you say and have often expressed similar sentiments on this blog. Nevertheless, I think you are overlooking much of the source of Sabl’s (and my) unhappiness with Messina’s decision to work for a party of the right, particularly one with strong Thatcherite proclivities. The Democratic Party in this country has historically considered the center-left parties in certain other countries, particularly France and England, to be “sister parties” with similar agendas and values.

    The Labour Party is the traditional “sister party” of the Democrats in English politics. The Democratic Party is the traditional home for Labour voters who take American citizenship and vice versa. By contrast, the Conservatives were until recently considered a sister party of the Republicans. As Andy points out, many Democrats of my generation have very strong feelings of loyalty towards our party and that’s why many people (including me) think of Messina as something of a Benedict Arnold.

    This situation also highlights, as does your comment, what I think is a much larger problem, namely, that the parties of the center-left are being lead by men from the center-right or even the right. Partly, I think this for the same reason that Southerners dominated the Democratic Party ticket long after that region stopped being a party stronghold—people who don’t share the values of the South really haven’t anyplace else to go and the political consultants have always thought the southerners were insulated from charges of anti-Americanism and could draw some center-right southerners who might prefer the center-right candidate from their region to the center-right candidate from someplace else.

    The rise of finance to a dominant place in American society, combined with Bill Clinton’s decision to cultivate Wall Street as a source of money and power for both himself and the Democratic Party has meant that both parties increasingly compete for and represent the of finance exclusively. A similar dynamic can be seen in the Labour Party with the rise of Tony Blair.

    I also think that’s why people close to the Democrats and to Obama seem so surprised at the backlash. Many of the responses from prominent Democratic insiders have stress Obama’s own preferences for the Conservatives and his feelings of solidarity with David Cameron. As far as the center-right tools of finance who run the Democratic Party are concerned, they have far more in common with the Conservatives than with people who have a red rose as their symbol.

    1. This was a response to NCG above. My apologizes but blogging with an iPad is hard.

  5. Mr. Sabl, your position is untenable.

    Messina is a service provider, not some sort of indentured acolyte to a cause. He can sell his services to anyone with the ability to pay, and in a world with a properly calibrated moral compass, no opprobrium would attach.

    It’s a job.

    1. If he in fact thinks as you do—and I’ve been hearing from lots of people who claim that he does—Messina is perfectly free, as an economic agent, to sell his services to anyone who feels like employing a political consultant who adopts this mercenary attitude. And those who feel that such an attitude is inappropriate in someone whose job entails persuading citizens to vote a certain way regarding matters of the highest importance are equally free to show him the door. That is what I’m suggesting we do.

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