of the Party
[Note from CarlD: This article raises questions for independent progressives and the left as well. As Alvin Toffler puts it, if you don't have a strategy, you're part of someone else's strategy.]
By Matt Stoller
May 07, 2008-Over 1.25 million Indianans voted yesterday for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary.
Over 1.1 million Indianans voted for Jill Long Thompson or Jim Schellinger in the Democratic primary for Governor of Indiana.
In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry received 969,000 votes in the state of Indiana...in the general election.
That is stunning. The primary has been exceptionally good for party building. Obama has created a number of significant infrastructure pieces through his campaign, displacing traditional groups the way he promised he would by signaling the end of the old politics of division and partisanship.
1. Voter Registration: Obama has launched a 50 state registration drive.
"That's why I'm so proud that today our campaign announced a massive volunteer-led voter registration drive in all 50 states to help ensure every single eligible voter takes part in this election so we can take back Washington for the American people."
I have heard from several sources that the Obama campaign is sending out signals to donors, specifically at last weekend's Democracy Alliance convention, to stop giving to outside groups, including America Votes.
The campaign also circulated negative press reports about Women's Voices Women's Vote, implying voter suppression.
2. Obama Organizing Fellows: Here's Obama describing them:
Basically what we've done is we've been attracting so much volunteer talent, so many young people who have gotten involved in the campaign, that we wanted to give a handful of them an opportunity to have some more intensive training. So we've asked them to apply for fellowships. I think they're called Obama Fellows. They will get intensive training, and they will be put on staff and will have an experience, starting in June.
These are unpaid positions, and they will be used to do field organizing, message, and helping to "continue to build the movement".
This is pure leadership development, though it continues the class-based diminution of talent by refusing to pay, a problem outlined in Crashing the Gates.
3. Money: With 1.5 million donors, this campaign has blown away anything we've ever seen in terms of grassroots fundraising. The technology is all centralized, so Obama knows the name, address, giving patterns, and occupation of every donor out there, as well as social networking information, like who the best raisers are. He has bypassed Actblue, and will probably end up building in a Congressional slate feature to further party build while keeping control of the data.
One email from Moveon to their full list can bring in between $100k to $1M for a candidate, with $1M being the very top end of the range. With one good email to his list, in a few months, Obama will probably be able to bring in $1-3M for a Senate candidate under attack or split that among several. 10-20% of the money going to Senate candidates this cycle might come from Barack Obama's internet operation. Stunning.
4. Field: MyBarackObama.com is the cornerstone of the campaign, and it will have between 10-15 million opt-in members by election day. This group can be used for lobbying on legislation, GOTV, and donations.
It's a cross between Moveon.org and the DNC, and with the White House, it can transform progressive politics and further amplify the power of the Presidency. As coordinated campaigns pick up, and the top of the ticket brings coattails, organizing power is going to further flow to the Obama campaign.
5. Message and Politics: Obama used youtube to push back on Reverend Wright, something he will continue to do to move beyond sound bite politics. He has a good press shop and a way to push message out to the web. The campaign has also, despite thousands of interviews with a huge number of outlets, refused to have Obama interact on progressive blogs. The Fox News situation, where Obama went on Fox News and mismanaged communications, drew criticism from Moveon because taking down Fox News has been a key strategic goal of that organization; nevertheless, the group supported him because of overwhelming adulation from their membership.
This is a far different strategy than the McCain campaign, who, though he hates blogs, talks to them, or the Clinton campaign, who invites them on her calls. This is NOT a criticism, by the way, it's obviously worked as a strategy to centralize messaging power around the Obama shop while neutering a potentially off-message rowdy group. That has its downsides, which I'll get into, but it is a strategy.
I'm also told, though I can't confirm, that Obama campaign has also subtly encouraged donors to not fund groups like VoteVets and Progressive Media. These groups fall under the 'same old Washington politics' which he wants to avoid, a partisan gunslinging contest he explicitly advocates against.
You know all that old-style Washington politics preventing real change?
As hard as it might be to handle, in a lot of ways he means that those of us who believe in partisan hard edged combat are part of an outmoded system. It doesn't actually divide cleanly; old hand Tom Daschle is a key figure and likely to be Obama's chief of staff, and Artur Davis is likely to be his Attorney General. These are old school Democrats, and Obama's machine is full of the Congressional wing of the party that lost out in 1992 to Clinton and his people.
This isn't a criticism; again, Obama made his bet that the country isn't into ideological combat and wants a politics of unity and hope, and he has won at internally. In terms of the 'Iron Law of Institutions', the Obama campaign is masterful. From top to bottom, they have destroyed their opponents within the party, stolen out from under them their base, and persuaded a whole set of individuals from blog readers to people in the pews to ignore intermediaries and believe in Barack as a pure vessel of change. It's actually very similar to Clinton from 1994-2000, where power and money in the Democratic Party is being centralized around a key iconic figure. He's consolidating power within the party.
Now here's the part that's unclear. Obama has successfully remade the Democratic Party already, and shown that old partisan Washington politics is over if you are a Democrat. Can he do that with Republicans? By stripping power, money and responsibility from outside groups and opponents, Obama is increasing his control of the party apparatus. He is also, however, putting everything on his own shoulders. When the Swift Boaters come back, and they will, it's all on Obama and his movement to hit back. He's betting that he can strip power from their base just as he stripped power from the old Washington way of doing politics within the Democratic Party.
I do not doubt that he can do this during the general election. McCain is such a weak candidate, and the Republicans are in such disarray, that a solid White House victory, 5-7 Senate seats, and 40-50 seats in the House are clearly possible. House Republicans are especially mean right now; insiders tell me they are going to cause problems with the war funding tactics just because they are so depressed from losing in Louisiana and Illinois. They have no money for the House and the Senate, and a depressed base. I'm curious about Obama's governing philosophy, as that is where the Republicans are going to make their stand in 2009. Without traditional outside groups (and he doesn't want them involved, witness his lobbyist ban in his new administration), Obama is going to be relying on the emergent networks that come from his campaign to buttress his priorities, but since we don't actually know what they are, it's hard to figure out what his governing strategy will be. As Mike Lux wrote earlier, it's time to get ready for Obama as the nominee. I would amplify this and point out that it's time to get ready for a party that is being taken apart and rebuilt as the Obama movement.
It's incredibly refreshing, in a sense, for politics to be completely reimagined on top of the internet and with a strong focus on leadership development, volunteers, and outside of DC leadership disdainful of partisanship and the give and take of politics-as-usual. It's also displacing the anti-Bush arguments of the last eight years and the political dynamic it fostered on the left.
There's certainly a danger here of relying on projected numbers instead of traditional power bases, though I don't think he'll be abandoning groups like unions and black churches, nor will any progressive movement structures abandon him. But I really think that the Obama campaign is reacting to this demonization campaign from the right by saying "OK, I'll find voters in so many nooks and crannies and make you work in so many states that you won't have a chance to make this narrative work."
His response is not necessarily building a progressive electorate; that would be accomplished by plugging into the nascent progressive structures that already exist. Obama appears to want to build an electorate aligned with Obama's principles and values, and fostering greater participation in politics as a means to move the country forward and break the current polarization. Some Democrats would play on the same playing field and try to win it; Obama's building an entirely new field, one where these narratives and negative ads and the need to tailor the entire general election to 10 independent voters in the middle of Ohio won't matter anymore.
I can't say if it will totally work, but that looks to be the strategy.
We've been tantalized with these kinds of efforts before; it's actually a very traditional belief that increased turnout is good for Democrats.
All I'll add is that it's time to think through the consequences of a party where there is a new chief with massive amounts of power. I've been in the wilderness all my political life, as have most of us. The Clintonistas haven't, and they know what it's like to be part of the inside crew. We have a leader, and he's not a partisan and he can now end fractious intraparty fights with a word and/or a nod. His opinion really matters in a way that even Nancy Pelosi's just did not. He has control of the party apparatus, the grassroots, the money, and the messaging environment. He is also, and this is fundamental, someone that millions of people believe in as a moral force. When you disagree with Obama, you are saying to these people 'your favorite band sucks'.
Like many of us, I endorsed Obama, gave him money, and I intend to work to get him elected. He is attempting to completely rewrite the rules of politics, and we should try to figure out what that means for where we take our meager work. Obama is now the party leader. And he has ensured and we have given him the mandate that when he speaks, he speaks for all of us. I hope he's a vibrant progressive when he gets into office, and we should begin figuring out how to put ourselves in a position to help him take the country in a progressive direction.