I first got to know Jim Messina right after the Democratic disaster in 2004. Bush had been reelected -- along with a Republican Congress. The centerpiece of their program for a second term was the privatization of Social Security -- their plan to trade Social Security's guaranteed benefits for a risky investment scheme that allowed Wall Street to get its hands on the Social Security Trust Fund.
Messina was Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus' Chief of Staff. I was working with a group of unions and other progressive organizations to set up a campaign to stop the privatization of Social Security.
With Messina's help, the coalition recruited Paul Tewes to manage that campaign. Tewes would go on several years later to run the most extraordinary grassroots effort in the history of American politics: managing the Obama victory in the Iowa caucuses that made him a contender for the presidency. Brad Woodhouse, who is now Communications Director at the DNC, became Communications Director of the Social Security campaign. I became Field Director.
Through the next nine months, the coalition that became Americans United to Protect Social Security ran a major grassroots effort that was successful at stopping privatization dead in its tracks.
I can tell you for certain that much of the credit for the campaign's success went to Jim Messina.
Messina worked the Senate, helping to hold wayward members in line, and devised a strategy with his boss and the Democratic Leadership. But there was never a day that he didn't focus on what he said really mattered: that out in the Districts people were mobilizing to support Social Security.
Jim has always been absolutely committed to the view that progressives win through a grassroots movement -- through people taking action. And he understands that you engage people by making them simultaneously feel that they are part of something bigger -- something historic -- and at the same time they can each make a personal contribution that really matters to the movement's success.
When Messina left Baucus to join the Obama Campaign as Chief of Staff, those of us who had worked with him were thrilled. Messina was a committed progressive who started out in politics as a grassroots organizer in Montana. He has the management skill of a top CEO coupled with boatloads of political savvy.
And there was one other quality that made him the perfect choice for Campaign Chief of Staff then -- and Campaign Manager now:
From my personal experience working with Messina over the last six years, I can tell you firsthand that he is completely committed to progressive values. But he doesn't believe that is good enough. Messina believes that you have to put those values into practice -- that you have to convert them into public policy. Messina is passionate about winning.
I haven't always agreed with every tactical choice of the Obama administration, or with Messina's approach to every issue. He'd be the first to tell you that I am regularly hounding him with suggestions on how he -- or the administration -- should do something, or not do something.
But I have no doubt whatsoever that Messina is absolutely devoted to the fulfillment of the progressive vision that is at the heart of what is special about America. And more times than not he is successful at making progress happen.
Messina is sometimes criticized by progressives for his management of the health care battle. Progressives like myself believe strongly that the Affordable Care Act would be better if it had included a Public Option. So, by the way, does Messina.
I personally would have preferred if the White House would have fought more forcefully for the public option.
But having been deeply involved in the health care battle working with Americans United for Change and Health Care for America Now (HCAN), I'm not sure we could have gotten a Public Option no matter what the president did or did not do. The Senate filibuster, the health insurance lobby, and Senator Lieberman were our chief obstacles. The administration and Senate leadership had negotiated a deal with progressive Senators to include a Medicare buy-in for people from 55 to 65 years of age -- which would have been a huge advance. But then the insurance industry told Lieberman -- who had favored the plan -- to drop it. And that was that.
I think Messina and others, like David Axelrod, would agree that there were mistakes made in the campaign. One of those was allowing the battle to go on for so long -- indulging Senator Baucus' attempt to get bipartisan compromise over so many months that it amplified our opponent's ability to dominate the air waves. By the way, I don't know that Messina could have personally done a lot more to get Baucus off of the bipartisan program more quickly -- notwithstanding their close relationship -- though I suspect he tried.
The White House was being told that the bill had to go through the committee process in order to keep sixty votes. Getting Baucus to move that process more quickly would have required a major confrontation, that at the time the White House apparently did not think would be productive. In retrospect Messina may view it differently, I don't know.
Another problem was not shifting soon enough to framing the battle as a fight with the insurance industry -- a message frame that ultimately allowed us to win. But the decision for the administration not to use the insurance frame early was not made to "coddle" the industry. It was made to keep their money off the airwaves as long as possible. I think there is now general acknowledgment that the campaign would have been better off moving to the insurance frame earlier.
But all of that being as it may, the fact is that Obama -- and Jim Messina -- won a major reform in the health system that others had tried to win for almost 100 years and failed to achieve.
After Scott Brown's victory in the Massachusetts special Senate election in January 2010, there were those who believed the health care fight was lost. Messina led the battle that helped overcome the Massachusetts disaster that cost Democrats a 60-vote margin in the Senate. Nancy Pelosi's iron-willed leadership, the president's determination, and Harry Reid's skill were all necessary ingredients for the victory. But without Jim Messina, I don't believe that health care reform would be the law of the land.
Health insurance reform wasn't tough to pass because it was so complicated. It was tough to pass because it gored the oxen of major vested interests that weren't just going to roll over and play dead. Messina was the general who beat those forces in a major war.
Jim has also been criticized by some in the gay rights community for not moving forcefully enough to eliminate Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT). But in the end, his strategy of getting buy-in from the Defense Department and leading Generals worked. It got the votes the president needed in Congress to pass the bill.
And in case you mistakenly believe Messina is just a hard-bitten political operative and not a true-believer, here's what Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign Fund said about the day that Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed, in a recent article in The Nation:
Solmonese said that Messina was "unquestionably one of the great unsung heroes of DADT repeal." Solmonese then described how he stood side by side with Messina on the Senate floor as the bill cleared the body on December 18. When the sixtieth vote came in, Solmonese said, Messina began to cry.
The same thing happened at a Common Purpose meeting where all present toasted Messina and each other for passing health care reform after a century of trying.
Messina represented the administration week after week at Common Purpose, an organization that was the first effort of its kind to assure systematic contact between the leadership of progressive organizations and a Democratic president.
Others may differ. I think they that those meetings have proved invaluable, assuring passage of progressive initiatives like the health care law, financial reform, repeal of DADT, the economic stimulus bill that saved the economy from a depression, and the critical first Obama budget.
My understanding is that the campaign plan for 2012 is still in formation. But one critical element is clear. The campaign will be even more reliant than it was in 2008 on its grass roots ground game. Messina is devoted to the central values of the Obama campaign culture: respect, empowerment, accountability and inspiration.
His management style is to treat the people who are part of his organization with respect; empower them to do their jobs; and hold everyone in the organization accountable for meeting concrete goals. And he understands that people excel when they are inspired -- when they feel that they are part of something historic, and are called upon to contribute personally to make that historic goal a reality.
Those are the principles that gave the 2008 Obama campaign the most successful field operation in the history of American politics. Messina intends to build on that success. That's why he's chosen 2008 alums Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird to manage the field operation in 2012.
If you talk to the people who've worked for Jim over the years, you find nothing but respect and admiration for his talent and for the way he treats the people who work for him.
Obama's 2008 field organizers revered Campaign Manager David Plouffe. I predict the same will be true of Jim Messina.
In President Obama's first two years the progressive forces took enormous amounts of new ground. We didn't win everything. One of the most heartbreaking defeats was the failure to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Another was the defeat of energy legislation. But we were definitely back on the offensive after a long period in a defensive crouch.
None of those victories would have happened without a massive battle. Last November, Wall Street, the insurance industry, the big banks and the Chamber of Commerce regrouped and the empire struck back. Change isn't easy. If it were, it would have happened a long time ago.
Now we have to defend our gains and regroup for a progressive counter-offensive in 2012 -- one that will allow us to make this period in our history a real "big change" moment like the New Deal or the 1960's.
The stakes are enormous. If we are successful at taking back the House, holding onto the Senate and reelecting the president we can realize the promise that millions felt as we watched Barack Obama take the oath as president just over two years ago. If we are not successful, we could fall back into the political dark ages.
In a battle like that, I can't think of anyone I would rather have as Commanding General more than Jim Messina.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.
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