Jim Messina, How Could You Flip From Barack Obama to David Cameron?

From immigration to austerity, Michael Tomasky on the insanity of Jim Messina’s new job with David Cameron.

Charles Dharapak/AP

WTF, Jim Messina? How does a person go from running Barack Obama’s reelection campaign to working for David Cameron and the Tories? Well, you might be thinking, perhaps there really isn’t all that much space between Obama and Cameron. The big-C Conservatives over there, after all, aren’t remotely like our small-c conservatives over here. I say that’s about as faint as praise can possibly be. I also say, and will hope to show you, that it isn’t as true as you think it is. How an operative willing to tether himself to some of Cameron’s policies can come back home and work again in Democratic politics without facing some very tough questioning indeed is hard to imagine.

Let’s start with immigration. A pretty hot topic in America, and one on which Obama’s position—a course toward citizenship for 11 million people who are here illegally—is well-known and universally shared within the Democratic Party. Turns out immigration is pretty hot stuff in the U.K. too—specifically, illegal immigration. Earlier this year, the Home Office reported 863,000 undocumented people living in Britain. That’s about 1.3 percent of the total population, considerably less than the United States’ roughly 3.6 percent. Still, the people are in a state, or some of them are. So the Tory government has just recently begun a campaign. What kind of campaign, you ask?

Well, imagine if a border-state conservative governor—Rick Perry of Texas, Jan Brewer of Arizona—started sending a billboarded van into immigrant neighborhoods advising illegals to “go home.” That would be rather controversial here, don’t you think? And I daresay that nearly every Democratic politician I can think of, starting with Obama, would denounce such an effort.

Yet that is precisely what Cameron’s government is doing now, in six London boroughs. Vince Cable, the government’s own business secretary—he’s from the Lib-Dems—calls the policy “stupid and offensive.” That’s the kind of politics that Messina wants to sign on to? It’s Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” made flesh. It’s right out of the Joe Arpaio playbook, but I’m not sure even the Maricopa County sheriff would try that one. Closer to the Arpaio spirit, however, police have also just begun instituting spot checks of people acting suspiciously near suburban Tube stations. The Home Office defends this, as it does the vans, and says, of course, that a person’s skin “colour” plays no role in the spot checks.

If that doesn’t sound quasi-Republican enough for you, try Cameron’s economic policies. It is well and thoroughly recorded that Cameron, along with Angela Merkel, has been one of the chief architects and adherents of the post-meltdown austerity program, and it’s been equally thoroughly documented that the policy has been an economic failure. Growth in the United States isn’t gangbusters, but neither is it Britain’s hideous 1 percent or less. But surely the slashed spending has, as our Republicans insist, reduced the deficit and the burden on future generations, right? Not so much. The U.K. budget deficit is running around 7 percent of GDP; in America, it’s now around 4 percent.

On top of that, Cameron’s budget cuts are of the type and scope to make Paul Ryan envious, featuring that combination of punitive cruelty and I-give-up illogic you may have thought only our GOP had perfected. Take the “universal credit” program, designed to “help” poor people get to work. According to a recent foundation study written up by Polly Toynbee in The Guardian, the policy punishes single parents seeking to work more hours. A single mother working a day and a half takes home £268. If she doubles her workload, however, she makes just £6 more. And if she goes full time, she makes £2 less than she started with, because the credit is reduced at such a steep rate as people work more.

Of course, it practically goes without saying that the drastic cuts that took effect this March were made, insists Cameron, because Conservatives “care.” A year ago, Messina heard such rhetoric and properly scoffed. Now he’s going to be peddling it.

Finally, just to toss in another angle Americans should be able to relate to, Messina will be reporting to a man named Lynton Crosby, the chief election strategist. Crosby is also the chief lobbyist in the U.K. for Philip Morris. The Cameron government had launched plans—since dropped, after the multimillion-pound Crosby contract was reported—to drop Britain’s currently harrowing cigarette packages and replace them with plain ones, which obviously would benefit Philip Morris.

There’s more, but that’s a start for you, and it’s just from recent headlines. On immigration, domestic spending cuts, and Big Tobacco, Messina is signing on to and in the first two cases will be defending positions that are perfectly in line with America’s Republican Party. What’s he doing?

Maybe the same thing he was doing back in 2002, when he made what’s often called the most homophobic ad in U.S. political history for his old mentor, Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT). But Cameron, it seems, wouldn’t have liked that ad. Two weeks ago he said he wants “to export gay marriage around the world.” So at least Messina won’t be proposing any ads that poke “fun” at male hairdressers. I suppose that’s progress.

Political consulting isn’t a profession known for its demanding ethical standards. But no matter how flexible your relationship to the truth or how sleazy your ads, there is one line you aren’t supposed to cross—going to work for the other side. The Tories aren’t the Texas Republican Party. But they are the other side. I hope the Democrats who consider hiring him in 2016 understand that.

NOTE: The rest of this week is vacation time, so no more columns or blog posts unless something monumental happens or the mood to write overwhelms me.