It’s not unusual for Britain, ahead of a national election, to be swarming with American political consultants. What is odd is seeing top members of President Obama’s political team deploy to opposite sides in the coming battle.
David Axelrod, Obama’s chief consigliere, has just signed on to help Labour craft its strategy for next year’s election. But in what many Democrats regard as a dumbfounding act of apostasy, Jim Messina, who ran Obama’s 2012, has hired out to David Cameron’s Tories.
Perhaps the two high-priced operatives, who know each other well, will simply cancel each other out. But in truth they bring very different skills to their respective campaigns. Messina is a master organiser who oversaw Obama’s state-of-the-art voter mobilisation effort in 2012.
Axelrod is a strategist who helped Obama wrest the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton and go from first-term Senator to first black President in 2008.
It’s hard to say how Axelrod’s talents will translate into the British context. The impact of campaign consultants – who always have a 50-50 chance of winding up on the winning side – is routinely exaggerated by political reporters and insiders.
Consultants are rarely better than the candidates they serve and, let’s face it, Axelrod is likely to find in Ed Miliband a somewhat less charismatic commodity than Barack Obama.
But Axelrod does have something Miliband needs, and it’s not a passion for grappling with inequality, as some media reports have said. The Chicago-based Axelrod is a man of middle America, not a creature of Washington. He has an intuitive grasp of the pragmatic nature of US voters, especially those without strong partisan attachments.
In short, where Messina is a whizz at energising true believers, Axelrod knows how to talk to swing voters.
What those voters want is a plan for reviving economic dynamism and opportunity, not a “populist” narrative that casts them as helpless victims of an all-powerful plutocracy. Their answer to inequality is not to pull down the mighty, but to create more jobs with decent pay, get wages growing again along with productivity, and rebuild middle class prosperity.
In America at least, this difference between a politics centred on economic aspiration and one centred on class grievance is crucial. Like Bill Clinton before them, Obama and Axelrod fashioned successful presidential campaigns by stressing the former.
Axelrod deftly read the public mood in 2008. There was a powerful revulsion to politics as usual in Washington. Axelrod presented Obama as the ultimate outsider, turning his relative lack of political experience into a key selling point. This experience may prove useful for Milliband and Labour, who likewise must craft a powerful argument for political change even as the UK economy improves.
In any event, Axelrod’s feel for the kind of ideas that move persuadable voters will likely prove an asset.
This article was originally published by the London Times here.