In the bombastic carnival known as an American presidential campaign, the only thing louder yet more indispensable than a candidate’s message are the message makers themselves. Recall the Cajun-spiced crankiness of James Carville, lording over Bill Clinton’s 1992 “war room” with relentless messaging of “It’s the economy, stupid” as he helped a lesser-known Arkansas governor to unseat an incumbent president. Less visible, but no less integral, was Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who inked “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc” for Reagan’s D-Day tribute in 1984 and the more politically cloddish sound bite “Read my lips, no new taxes” for the elder President Bush. For the Reagan presidency, which was from the get-go a simulation par excellence, it was Noonan who provided an already lacquered president a pasteurized narrative to call his own. Similarly, Karl Rove was referred to as the “brain” of George W. Bush since he was governor of Texas. By the end of Dubya’s unfortunate eight years in the Oval Office, few would contest that moniker.
When Barack Obama’s torrid keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention induced a collective fever among the faithful, the media and much of the electorate, Obama’s newly minted campaign guru, David Axelrod, was catapulted into the celebrity class of campaign consultants. Certainly Obama’s stratospheric leap from freshman Illinois senator to the White House in just four years showed Axelrod to be of shrewd strategy and good judgment. Obama’s comfortable trouncing of Mitt Romney in 2012, despite a wobbly economy, proved Axelrod to be nothing if not consistent in his handiwork.
In Britain, where election campaigns tend toward the staid and where the “selling” of a prime minister is about as welcome as a papal encyclical, Axelrod and his former cohort, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, have been hired by the Labour and Tory parties, respectively.
That Messina, a longtime Democratic operative, is helping to reelect the current occupant of Downing Street, the Conservative leader David Cameron, is beside the point. Axelrod, set to assist Labour leader Ed Miliband, has a Herculean assignment: he has to conjure up more than a bit of stardust at Westminster.
There is nothing new about the spiritual components, if not always ideological ones, in the Anglo-American relationship. When Tony Blair ran in 1997 as a candidate of “New Labour,” his campaign was redolent of Clinton’s centrist repositioning. Indeed, it was not surprising that Carville and Paul Begala, another Clinton advisor from the 1992 campaign, were Blair confidants in his first successful election as prime minister. More memorably, Reagan and Margaret Thatcher often inhabited the same philosophical foxhole—reactionary warriors who championed the free market and anti-communism with equal parts fervor and pious simplicity.
British parliamentary elections, which ban political advertising on television and eschew the bromides that are indigenous to the American stump, would seem an unnatural milieu for Axelrod and Messina. Apart from their employment with rival factions, these gentlemen have been spoiled by political ultra-comets like Obama, whose personal narrative and hopeful hymns turned the flicker of a campaign ember into a glorious bonfire. Not so David Cameron, who has presided over a coalition government since 2010.(No party earned a majority in the last election, so the Conservatives have coalesced with the Liberal Democrats.) Cameron, arguably the most aristocratic of recent prime ministers (what with his Etonian education and fiscal-rectitude mantras), has all the frisson of a Barclays board member. While Cameron did push through the legalization of gay marriage even amid opposition from the right flank of his party, the preternaturally cynical English voter hasn’t yet bought into his frequent talk of economic recovery. Nor did a recent Easter message labeling England a “Christian country” win plaudits in a nation that insists that its politicians show a bit more deference to scientific facts than to God.
It may be Axelrod, however, who finds bringing a Labour government back to power the more arduous task. The bookish son of a Marxist intellectual father and Polish mother who escaped the horrors of the Third Reich and found sanctuary in Britain, Miliband suffers from an 18-point gap on matters of economic credibility, according to the Daily Telegraph and other papers. Although Labour enjoys an advantage over the Tories in most polls, Miliband’s personal ratings rank somewhere near the depth of the Thames; his leaden talks on policy matters make Al Gore’s talk of a “lockbox” in the 2000 election seem incandescent.
Axelrod was presumably attracted to Miliband’s rhetoric about inequality and Britain’s “squeezed middle”—not to mention a reported six-figure retainer. Obama’s continued message that rising economic productivity isn’t translating into higher wages remains frustratingly resonant in the U.S. and here in the U.K., where the “Great Recession” has officially departed yet leaving behind stagnant incomes and a restive middle class. Axelrod will have more ideological freedom here to shape a progressive message both because the British acknowledge that most of the post-recession gains remain concentrated at the highest income strata and because they cherish their social welfare state, known in national parlance as the postwar settlement, created after World War II. Among other things, this collective commitment contains a universal health care system at its core—a proud, enduring Labour legacy to which many of the Tory privileged class have long reconciled.
More titillating is the fact that two former Obama aides have chosen opposing sides to hawk their wares. In fairness, there isn’t a gaping chasm between Tories and Labour—the Tories are rather like Rockefeller Republicans, or what resembles much of today’s Democratic Party, while Labour up until Blair pushed the kind of leftism that the Occupy Movement pines for: permanently high taxes on wealth and an aggressively unionized workforce. Conservative essayist Andrew Sullivan has argued that Obama is every bit a Tory, and the indisputable fact that the Labour party’s intellectual undergirding is rooted in socialism reveals that what can be bragging rights here sometimes is political strychnine in America. Whether Axelrod or Messina can persuade a wary English electorate that Miliband or Cameron offers “change you can believe in” is, as Winston Churchill might have put it, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”