contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at the Nation Institute. He is author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics.
Republicans and Democrats are already gearing up for the 2012 election, projected to be the most expensive in history. Obama is expected to formally kick off his re-election bid on April 14, and his campaign could raise as much as $1 billion. In a move criticized by progressives, Obama has appointed former White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina as his campaign manager. Obama’s move has drawn scrutiny over Messina’s ties to corporate America, his push to drop the public option from healthcare reform, and his lack of support for gay rights. We speak with journalist and author Ari Berman about his new profile of Messina in The Nation. "Messina has a ‘take no prisoners’ style; the problem is, the people he’s often taking prisoner are Democratic activists and grassroots organizers,” Berman says. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Republicans and Democrats are already gearing up for the 2012 election, which is expected to be the most expensive in history. The 2008 election set new records for campaigns. It was the longest, at 22 months, and the most expensive, at $1.7 billion.
Obama is expected to formally kick off his re-election bid on April 14th. His campaign expects to raise as much as $1 billion overall. Aggressive fundraising is now underway, including large low-dollar events in several cities, alongside exclusive gatherings that will cost as much as $35,800 to attend.
To handle his re-election effort, Obama has appointed Jim Messina as campaign manager. The move disappointed progressive observers, given Messina’s links to corporate America and more conservative elements in the Democratic Party. Known as "Obama’s Enforcer," Messina has also clashed with progressives on issues like healthcare reform and gay rights.
AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman has written an article in The Nation magazine profiling Jim Messina, explaining why Messina will lead a very different campaign than 2008. Ari Berman joins us now.
Well, tell us who Jim Messina is. Give us his background.
ARI BERMAN: Well, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer calls him "the most powerful man in Washington you haven’t heard of." And progressives are worried about him based on his background and his actions in the White House.
For a very long time, he worked for Max Baucus, the senator of Montana, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, who was one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate. After working for Baucus, he briefly joined the Obama campaign as the campaign’s chief of staff, then went to work for Rahm Emanuel in the White House, who was deputy chief of staff, the same position Karl Rove held for some time — the same position Josh Lyman held on The West Wing, for some cultural observers. And really, during that time, he was thought of as first Rahm’s enforcer. Then, when Rahm went to Chicago to become mayor, Messina really took on the role of Rahm.
And during that time, he was the top liaison to progressive groups on issues like healthcare, on issues like gay rights. And his tenure, from my reporting, was really marked by his clashes with those progressive activists. He was supposed to be working with them, but often was instead at odds with them. And that’s why Obama supporters that I talked to are worried about his elevation as campaign manager for 2012.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And with these progressive groups, there was a weekly meeting, every Tuesday, Common Purpose. Could you talk about how Messina dealt with that group and what it is?
ARI BERMAN: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Because most people across the country don’t even — have never heard of it.
ARI BERMAN: Yeah. There was this group set up called the Common Purpose Project, which really was supposed to be the gathering where administration officials would brief progressive groups. Big progressive groups like MoveOn.org, labor unions, AFL-CIO, SEIU, Planned Parenthood, all the gamut of progressive groups in Washington, inside and outside of Washington, would be at these meetings. And there was supposed to be a back-and-forth.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And they’d meet every Tuesday?
ARI BERMAN: They’d meet every Tuesday evening at the Capitol Hilton in Washington. But what Messina did is he really tightly controlled the discussions, and it was very much a one-way mode of doing business, where he said, "This is the strategy. Go support it." And what it was supposed to be, it was supposed to be a back-and-forth. And there was supposed to be outside mobilization by progressive groups on things like healthcare, on things like gay rights. That was the whole purpose of the Common Purpose Project.
But really what happened is Messina and the White House, Rahm and other people, demobilized these progressive groups, took them out of the equation on things like healthcare, didn’t want them talking about a public option, didn’t want them criticizing Max Baucus. And that had a very detrimental effect when the Tea Party exploded, and there was all this mobilization on the right and none on the progressive side.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And he would threaten to not — to disinvite you if you didn’t go along with the program?
ARI BERMAN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, to be at these meetings, you had to be in line, you had to be with the administration. If you weren’t, you would not be invited, or you’d be excommunicated. It was very much a "take no prisoners" style. Messina has a "take no prisoners" style; the problem is, the people he’s often taking prisoner are Democratic activists and grassroots organizers. And that’s why Obama supporters are worried about his role in 2012.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about bundling. Talk about the large donors and what Messina is doing right now.
ARI BERMAN: Absolutely. Well, if you look at the Obama campaign in 2008, what made it interesting was the fact that they raised all this money from small donors. Now, obviously they raised a lot of money from large donors, but they also raised a very significant amount from small donors. Thus far in the Obama campaign, Messina has basically been going around the country on a listening tour of large donors. That’s been his exclusive focus thus far. And it’s really a very different playbook. I mean, the Obama 2012 campaign, to me, right now looks a lot more like the Clinton campaign in ’96 or the Bush campaigns in 2000 and 2004, which is, raise a lot of money from large donors, raise a lot of money from corporate America, lock these people down first and build your campaign that way.
That was not the Obama model in 2008. And I think that’s another thing that people are wondering about. Where is the role for the small donors in here? Where is the role for the Obama activists in this equation? How are they going to be involved in a meaningful way in this campaign? Really, what Messina is doing is he’s following the Max Baucus playbook. Baucus routinely raised among the most money from special interests and had the most lobbyists on K Street of any senator for a very long time.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And is the feeling of the Obama campaign already that the enthusiasm that generated all those small donors over the internet in the first campaign is not going to be here the second time around?
ARI BERMAN: Well, that’s a very interesting question. It certainly faded in 2010. We saw that Democratic activists did not turn out like Republican activists turned out. There has been an explosion in some of the Democratic grassroots, in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, but that has very little to do with the Obama administration. So, there definitely is a feeling among Obama supporters that they need to be reactivated, they need to be brought in at a meaningful way and not just be looked at as window dressing on this campaign in 2012. Thus far, that has not happened, really, in any meaningful way.
AMY GOODMAN: New York Times saying the nation’s top Democratic contributors were given an ambitious set of marching orders on Thursday, yesterday, with a select group of 450 donors each asked to raise $350,000 before the end of the year. If all members meet their goal, the tally from this one group alone would be $157 million. A new goal will be set next year, expected to be much higher.
ARI BERMAN: Well, the Obama campaign wants to raise a billion dollars for this campaign. And in these events, you know, they’re not public. The names are not released. We don’t know who these donors are. We don’t know what promises are being made. Maybe they’re all just doing it out of the goodness of their own heart, but my feeling is, if you’ve got all these donors in a room, it would be a very different configuration of people than all the small donors who helped power the Obama campaign in 2008.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about other groups and issues that you — have raised deep concerns about Jim Messina, and the direction — of course, it’s not Jim Messina; it’s President Obama’s choice for the direction he wants to go. That’s how he — why he appoints this, what you call, enforcer.
ARI BERMAN: You mean the groups that have raised questions about him? Well, if you just look at my article, I mean, the people that talk about him were activists on healthcare reform, for example, big groups like Health Care for America Now, the major progressive groups.
AMY GOODMAN: HCAN.
ARI BERMAN: I mean, they were supposed to work with Messina, and they had a lot of problems with him. Groups on gay rights — a major gay rights blogger, Joe Sudbay for AMERICAblog, basically said, under Rahm and Messina, the White House suffered from political homophobia: they were afraid to do gay issues in politics. And it was only towards the very, very, very end of the lame-duck Congress, after this tax cut deal enraged liberal Democrats, that repealing "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" became a major victory for the administration and a priority for them.
So there’s sort of this revisionist history going on with regards to Messina. His allies say, "Oh, he’s been fighting for progressive politics all along. Look at all the stuff that he’s got done." And the groups that I talked to who worked with him say, "No, no, no, no, no. He was an obstacle along the way, over and over and over again, and we accomplished a lot of these things in spite of him." So this0 debate is going on right now to claim Messina’s legacy and to wonder who is he going to represent on the Obama campaign in 2012.
AMY GOODMAN: His relationship with Wall Street?
ARI BERMAN: He has a very close relationship with Wall Street. He organized a lot of these fundraising events that Baucus did. I mean, Baucus was chairman of the Finance Committee, raised a lot of money from Wall Street. Messina would frequently travel to New York to arrange these meetings that Baucus had. They would have these very lavish fundraising junkets out in Montana that Messina would organize. When Baucus kicked off his re-election campaign, he asked 50 lobbyists to raise $100,000 each for his campaign. And one lobbyist who attended said it was the most blunt message he had ever received from a senator. So, Baucus was almost exclusively going the corporate top-dollar route, and that’s what Messina was doing for him, in part.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much, Ari Berman, for joining us. The piece is called "Jim Messina, Obama’s Enforcer." He writes for The Nation magazine, investigative journalism fellow at the Nation Institute. His book is called Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics.