Lucky Jim

Column: Obama crony Jim Messina is in the empire business

Jim Messina Walter White
Jim Messina, Walter White / AP, Facebook
February 28, 2014

Earlier this week, inside a ballroom at the luxury Mandarin Oriental hotel in D.C., President Obama met with Organizing for America. OFA, as it's called for short, raised $26 million last year, much of it from an assortment of heirs, heiresses, hedge funders, and Hollywood executives. OFA is the president's advocacy group, charged with rounding up support for his gun control, immigration, minimum wage, and climate change initiatives. It has not been having much success.

The headline from this week's summit was the president's remark that OFA volunteers are doing "God’s work." Nothing, though, on who was in the audience during the invitation-only, "intimate roundtable discussion" between the president, his 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe, and his 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina. I would like to know who was there. I would like to know who was there because I would like to tell them, as gently as possible, that they are being bilked. Messina is taking their money and building an empire with it.

That is the inescapable conclusion one draws from a close reading of "The Democrats' Would-Be Karl Rove," a lacerating and damning investigation by Politico reporters Kenneth P. Vogel and Maggie Haberman. Vogel and Haberman relay, in amazing detail, Messina's determined, grasping, Heisenberg-like climb up the greasy pole, from college Democrat in Montana, to aide to Sen. Max "I'm no China expert" Baucus (D., Mont.), to Obama deputy chief of staff, to Obama campaign manager, to wealthy and unscrupulous political consultant. It's not pretty, but it's a living.

And what a living. Not only is Messina chairman of OFA, last month he also became chairman of Priorities USA, the pro-Obama Super PAC famous for the "Mitt Romney killed my wife" ad. Priorities USA recently announced it would back Hillary Clinton in 2016. The offices of both organizations have been moved, presumably at Messina's direction, to the Connecticut Avenue office building that houses his consulting firm, the Messina Group. The Messina Group does not disclose its clients, but Vogel and Haberman report that it cashes checks from the likes of the American Gaming Association, and from the campaigns of Charlie Crist of Florida, Anthony Brown of Maryland, and, um, David Cameron of the United Kingdom. Tory prime minister David Cameron.

In addition to the money he makes from his consultancy, and the payments from OFA and (starting next year) Priorities USA, Messina has a lucrative speaking gig going, with $50,000 speeches to realtors, energy producers including the American Petroleum Institute, health care associations, and conferences in human-rights-abusing countries such as Azerbaijan and the Emirate of Sharjah. He also still draws $7,000 a month from the Obama reelection campaign—Election Day, you will recall, was more than a year ago—and until January 2014 he earned $15,000 a month advising the Democratic National Committee, which is $15.6 million in debt. (Much of that debt is owed to a union-owned bank.) On top of all this, he sits on the boards of green energy companies Opower and LanzaTech; LanzaTech received grant money from the administration for which Messina once worked. The board seats come with stock options.

"Messina's effort to tap his earning potential while maintaining a hand on the levers of the party's apparatuses," Vogel and Haberman write, "has fueled grumbles from various Democratic donors and operatives, who accuse him—privately, and without the risk or accountability that can come from on-the-record criticism—of taking more than his share of the credit for a multifaceted victory, and of a cash binge that exposes Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to potential backlash."

Potential? I'd say the backlash is not a potentiality but an actuality. Messina's hand is on too many apparatuses; he's not leaving enough room for his fellow Democratic hacks. Not only are the grumbles about him being fueled, they are being launched—launched straight into the pages of Politico. And the grumbles themselves are cause for delight: at the backhanded, cloak and dagger way in which Democratic consultants act on their jealousy, envy, pride, and avarice, at their somewhat justified anger that an empty suit who happened to be in the right place at the right time is being garlanded as a political genius, a kingmaker, a tech guru, a powerbroker, a millionaire whose depth of knowledge of politics and policy equals that of bogeyman Karl Rove.

Liberals tend to ascribe wealth to luck rather than to hard work. It is a conclusion they may derive from personal experience. From the trust-fund babies who compose the ranks of the secretive and powerful Democracy Alliance, to the dilettantes whose fortunes came from the Harvard housing lottery, to the insiders like Messina whose status and finances and power is based on proximity to presidents and senators, liberal Democrats have a habit of falling ass-backwards into money.

Jim Messina is one lucky guy. If Mitt Romney had won the 2012 election, Messina would have shuffled off stage, unheralded and much poorer, eking out a (well compensated) living like every other consultant in the land. But Romney lost, and Messina's candidate won, and so he joined the ranks of storied political consultants, the Tucks, Deavers, Atwaters, Carvilles, and Axelrods, whose association with winning presidential nominees pays off not only in money but in an inflated public persona, in the assumption of a mythic image as the president's hidden hand, boy genius, dirty trickster, and architect. The best academic research may show that the political environment trumps campaign tactics, studies may reveal that Obama's ground game was not as powerful as advertised, but Washington's faith in the powers of its consultants lives on, rock-solid, impervious to evidence or doubt. It is the foundation on which D.C. fortunes are built.

What amuses me most is the self-deception, the lengths to which people will go to maintain the illusion that the money grubbing and empire building are part of a grand ideological project. Dismissing comparisons of Messina to Rove, Democratic donor John Morgan tells Politico, "The real difference is one has an outsized ego and it's about him, and the other has an ego that's very much in check and it's about the cause and the candidates."

Ah yes, the cause and the candidates. Because the interests of the American Gaming Association align perfectly with those of contemporary liberalism, because speeches in repressive countries reflect the most sophisticated liberal judgment, because Prime Minister David Cameron is in complete sync with Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown. Why these conflicts of party and country and interest do not cause a mental hiccup in someone like Morgan is mystifying to me. Mystifying, but not surprising: Morgan's moral equanimity, his self-righteousness, his unthinking partisanship, and his blinkered demonization of opponents is standard issue bourgeois liberalism.

Messina himself was more direct when he told Politico last year that "What I want to do with my work is just work with people and causes that I believe in." In Washington the greatest cause we believe in is ourselves, our careers, our connections and our ambitions, and that is the very thing Messina is doing with his work. And if that leads to Hillary Clinton being elected president, all the better for him. She will be one more connection, and hers will be one more victory, that Messina can leverage for his own gain. What he should keep in mind is that empires become large, diffuse, and difficult to hold together, that other claimants to the throne inevitably emerge, and that emperors have a habit of meeting bad ends.