In the peak years of George W Bush’s presidency, when his despairing detractors turned to The West Wing’s liberal fantasia for comfort, some of the show’s most committed enthusiasts were found outside of what might have been considered its home turf: not in Washington, but in Whitehall.
The vivacious idealists of Aaron Sorkin’s White House had an obvious appeal to a British political class that tended to be portrayed domestically as a tribe of cynical hacks. Indeed, when John Spencer, the actor who played the chief of staff to Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet, visited London, he was invited to Downing Street by Jonathan Powell, who carried out the same (real-world) duties for Tony Blair. “I don’t want to gush too much,” Spencer reported that British politicians said to him, “but I think meeting you could be one of the greatest moments of my life.”
Some may think that such peculiar hero-worship was confined to the Blair government, or the last decade. They should pay close attention to the news that Jim Messina, a senior Obama operative, has been hired by the Conservative party as a campaign strategy adviser ahead of the next general election. This turn of events has been interpreted as proof of the strong overlap between centrist Democrats and Conservatives on the one hand, and of Mr Messina’s ideological impurity on the other.
I would tend towards a third position: It’s not that Mr Messina doesn’t have genuine Democratic loyalties. It’s not that he thinks the Tories are right about everything. It’s simply that his political beliefs become a little less concrete with every mile he goes from Washington – just as the Tories’ ideological tests become a little easier to pass if you are blessed with the glamour of an American passport. Recall that Mr Messina’s other employers include Caesars Palace casinos. Recall what James Carville, the veteran Democratic strategist, said a few years ago: “If you go to Peru and you run a presidential race and you lose, no one knows or cares. So why go to New Jersey and lose for 100 grand when you can go to Peru and lose for a million?”
Succinctly put. Sure enough, there are American political operatives working all over the world, sprinkling their stardust on races from Ukraine to Australia. But as Mr Messina’s fellow Obama alumnus David Axelrod found out in Italy recently, where he guided his candidate Mario Monti to fourth place, the skill set is not always transferable. In fact, a survey of recent election results in races featuring American contractors suggests that the skill set might not be very much use at all. (Carville himself was last seen in action in Afghanistan, where presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani hired him as an adviser. “If you understand New Orleans, you understand Afghanistan,” said Ghani, who went on to win less than three per cent of the vote.)
And, yes, in this context, we are Peru. We might be reminded of the slew of Hollywood stars who head abroad for lucrative advertising gigs that they would never dream of taking at home. Most of the reactions to Mr Messina’s appointment have been predicated on the idea that Britain really, really matters, and naturally it does to us. Still, we should accept that for Mr Messina – who will not even travel to the UK to undertake his duties – it might not matter quite as much.
Despite all this, it seems unlikely that the breathlessness will subside. This isn’t just any old strategic operative: this is an American, and better still, an Obama guy! It feels, to the British media, like a marquee signing, like Bale to Real Madrid. But perhaps, in fact, it’s Beckham to the LA Galaxy: a big name, to be sure, but one whose best days are behind him, and one whose fame risks overshadowing that of his employers.
In politics, such renown for a backroom operative can be disastrous. The Tories already have their own case in point in the Australian Lynton Crosby, whose ferocious gifts as a spin doctor are not in doubt – but whose value to this particular campaign surely is. You could already make the case that his looming presence has crowded the Conservative message out of the story on numerous occasions – and we are still two years from an election. It seems safe to assume that whoever ends up running the Miliband campaign will look to make that vulnerable point into a serious weakness.
The same possibility stands for Mr Messina. Any time he can be associated with a Conservative policy that contradicts the Obama message, he will be asked: which is it, Jim? Nor, surely, are his vaunted skills as a microtargeter worth the hassle: the use of such strategies is far more relevant to a US election than to one of our own, where considerably less of the raw data essential to such an approach is available.
That none of this seems to have mattered very much is just another piece of proof that we are helplessly in thrall to American culture, and if you are an Obama veteran on the make, now is the time to be sending out your CV. If, on the other hand, you are a veteran British campaign manager, with an intimate knowledge of the vagaries of constituency politics and a usefully low profile in the media, you might reasonably feel frustrated. You might remember Lynton Crosby’s famous maxim, in urging his new employers to simplify their media messaging, to “get the barnacles off the boat”. And you might ask yourself: if a highly visible spin doctor doesn’t count as political sea life, what on Earth does?
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