Transforming An Insurgent Campaign Into A Governing Philosophy

Running an insurgent campaign is one thing. It is harder to be the insurgent force once you are in office. Tim Dickinson looked into the attempt to make this transformation in an article at Rolling Stone. He places the blame for the failure to maintain the enthusiasm for Obama’s agenda on David Plouffe, who was eager to get out after the campaign:

“There was no question of my joining the administration,” he recounts in his memoir. So Plouffe, in a truly bizarre call, decided to incorporate Obama for America as part of the Democratic National Committee. The move meant that the machinery of an insurgent candidate, one who had vowed to upend the Washington establishment, would now become part of that establishment, subject to the entrenched, partisan interests of the Democratic Party. It made about as much sense as moving Greenpeace into the headquarters of ExxonMobil.

This led to problems including becoming two closely identified with the Democratic Party machinery, risking the alienation of independents and Republicans who backed Obama. The departure of Plouffe (who has since rejoined the Obama administration as an adviser) also led to a more conventional legislative strategy:

The decision to shunt Organizing for America into the DNC had far-reaching consequences for the president’s first year in office. For starters, it destroyed his hard-earned image as a new kind of politician, undercutting the post-partisan aura that Obama enjoyed after the election. “There were a lot of independents, and maybe even some Republicans, on his list of 13 million people,” says Joe Trippi, who launched the digital age of politics as the campaign manager for Howard Dean in 2004. “They suddenly had to ask themselves, ‘Do I really want to help build the Democratic Party?'”

In addition, with Plouffe providing less input in his inner circle, Obama began to pursue a more traditional, backroom approach to enacting his agenda. Rather than using OFA to engage millions of voters to turn up the heat on Congress, the president yoked his political fortunes to the unabashedly transactional style of politics advocated by his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Health care reform — the centerpiece of his agenda — was no longer about mobilizing supporters to convince their friends, families and neighbors in all 50 states. It was about convincing 60 senators in Washington. It became about deals.

This affected how health care reform was approached:

What backfired, it turns out, was ceding populist outrage on health care to the far right. Because OFA failed to mobilize the American people to confront the insurance companies, it allowed industry-funded Republicans, like former House majority leader Dick Armey, to foment a revolt by the Tea Partiers, whose anger dominated the news. Stewart, the director of OFA, says the failure to anticipate last summer’s town-hall ragefest was his. “Organizing for America did not properly plan for that first week of August,” he says. “That was an error on my part.” OFA scrambled to rally its troops, generating more than 300,000 calls to Congress on a single day. But the belated effort typified the group’s first year. “It’s always reactive and half-hearted,” says Moulitsas. “The movement was built on the concept of big change — but they haven’t gone after the things you need to do to enact change.” Indeed, OFA’s own numbers reveal a sharp drop-off in activist participation: All told, only 2.5 million of its 13 million followers took part in its health care campaign last year — and that’s counting people who did nothing but sign the group’s “statement of support.”

“It didn’t work — with an exclamation point at the end!” says Rollins, the former Reagan strategist. “They didn’t keep the organization alive. They thought it was out there to use whenever they wanted to use it. But with constituents who feel like they’ve been part of a revolution — as ours did in ’80 and ’81 — you’ve got to feed them. You’ve got to make sure that they feel important.” Instead, says Rollins, OFA “e-mailed them to death, but without any real steps to make them feel a part of the process, like they felt a part of the campaign.”

Fortunately the Obama administration is becoming more engaged in pushing for health care reform. The question is if it is too late to overcome the propaganda campaign of the far right which has many people believing false claims regarding the legislation.

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