Politics

Why Liberals Won’t Defend Obama’s Campaign Manager

Jim Messina is under attack from the right for his White House wheeling and dealing. He’s not finding much support from the liberals he wrangled during the health care wars.

Messina, right, and strategist Jim Margolis, left, walk to a meeting off the Senate floor this May. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Republicans this week made a target of President Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, pointing to emails unearthed in an investigation of health care deals to cast him as, at best, a political horse trader, and at worst, having potentially broken the law.

But before the right targeted Messina, the same approach to politics — a hard-edged, pragmatic, and unapologetically inside game — made him the left’s least favorite official in the Obama White House. Beginning in 2009, the White House corralled liberal allies into a weekly meeting some participants derided as the “veal pen.” And liberals watched with increasing alienation as the Administration chose deal-making over the bully pulpit, compromise over ideology — and blamed Messina. Now, as the Republican Party turns on Obama’s campaign manager, many on the left have a simple message: We told you so.

“Jim Messina famously said there was no grassroots strategy for winning health care reform — only an inside strategy,” said Adam Green, a cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, citing a famous line attributed to Messina in an unflattering Nation article headlined “Obama’s Enforcer.” “This confirms it, and explains a lot about why the White House pushed for a giant giveaway to insurance companies instead of pushing for what Americans actually wanted and needed: A public option or Medicare for All.”

Messina is now under fire for the deal he cut with the pharmaceutical industry, buying their support for ObamaCare with expensive concessions, and doing so in the great tradition of private Washington bargains.

“I will roll [P]elosi to get the 4 billion,” Messina from his personal email account — the White House has claimed he also forwarded such emails to his official account — in March 2010. “As you may have heard I am literally rolling over the house.”

That email, and the way it was sent, have become at the center of a Republican campaign to call into question the core integrity of the Obama Administration, and the Obama camp has sought to respond by making a virtue of Messina’s methods.

“There are many people in politics who take such an ideological hardline that they never achieve any of the progress they set out to make because they freeze out stakeholders and refuse any sort of compromise. Jim Messina is not one of those people,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in an email.

But Messina will find few defenders among the liberals whom he and his allies fought in 2009 and 2010 to keep in line behind the compromise health care plan.

“This behavior is classic Obama White House: adopting high-minded reforms with pretty words and flamboyant symbolic gestures, then doing everything possible in secret to preserve and even worsen the abuses Obama claims to oppose,” Guardian columnist and longtime liberal critic Glenn Greenwald told BuzzFeed. “Two of candidate Obama’s most prominent vows were general transparency and a specific refusal to draft legislation through secret meetings with industry lobbyists. On his most consequential bill, his White House directly and deliberately violated both of those. That behavior repeats itself in almost every policy realm of any consequence.”

Another leading player in the early battles between the White House and what then-press secretary Robert Gibbs referred to dismissively as the “professional left” described the emails as characteristic of a style that alienated progressive leaders.

“I always felt like he (and [then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel]) pulled the President into a transactional mode when he had the potential to be bolder and rewarded for being bolder,” said the official, who did not want to publicly undermine the campaign. “These e-mails certainly reinforce that point.

“But given where we are now, I understand why he’s an asset to the campaign. He’s very good at what he does; that’s why they are going after him,” the official said. “They are afraid of him and want him gone.”

Other liberal critics of Messina see the emails as almost beside the point. Richard Kirsch, who headed the advocacy coalition Health Care for America Now!, suggested in a memoir of the fight that Messina had sought to have him fired for breaking with the party line.

The problem “wasn’t the inside game playing itself — which is one part of the game that needs to be played,” Kirsch told BuzzFeed. “It was his suppressing another part of the game: the outside one that we were doing to support parts of the health care bill that were under attack.”

Messina, a former top aide to Senator Max Baucus, had at time a particularly difficult relationship with progressives on Capitol Hill, and appears unlikely to find defenders there. Rep. Raul Grijalva, who co-chairs the House’s Progressive Caucus, declined to comment because he had not followed the scandal, and even privately other progressives said they hadn’t paid enough attention to have an opinion one way or another.

Other Congressional Democrats, though, defended Messina. Rep. Gerry Connolly slammed Republicans for released the report, arguing it was a disingenuous political attack.

“These people are suddenly concerned about that?” Connolly said, noting that Republicans did not raise objections to similar actions by the Bush administration.

“If you’re going to be [outraged] at least be sincere about it,” Connolly added.

And to the White House, Messina gets credit for passing the massive health care overhaul — however the sausage was made.

“For decades, our nation has tried to tackle the health care crisis but both parties have reached an impasse,” said LaBolt. “Jim played a critical role in breaking that stalemate and passing historic reforms that are providing coverage to millions of young people who wouldn’t have it and putting a stop to insurance company abuses against Americans who get sick or have preexisting conditions.”

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Ben Smith is the Editor-in-Chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact this reporter at ben@buzzfeed.com
John Stanton is the Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief for BuzzFeed News. Stanton has spent extensive time on the U.S.-Mexico border reporting on immigration and is also a recipient of the National Press Foundation's 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
Contact this reporter at john.stanton@buzzfeed.com
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