The Obama Party

by dday

On Saturday, in over 100 locations across the country, the Obama Vote for Change campaign will roll out with kickoff events all over the country designed to register and mobilize voters. At the event I'll be attending in South Los Angeles, the goal is to register 2,000 new voters in one afternoon. Multiply that out and you have 200,000 voters registered by one campaign in a single day. And that's only the beginning. Marc Ambinder has caught on to just how seismic this summer has the potential of being.

The Obama campaign calls its "Vote for Change" voter registration drive a mere voter registration drive. Nothing to see here, folks, except for ordinary people helping ordinary people gain the franchise.

But it's more than that. The Vote For Change program will lay the foundation for Obama's general election get-out-the-vote efforts. Obama aides won't say much more, but I gather that the campaign is constructing an incredibly elaborate online interface to allow its more than a million donors and volunteers to directly persuade their neighbors through a variety of media. Names gathered from the voter registration effort will be merged with names gathered through Obama's primary efforts and the names off of the Democratic Party's integrated voter file as well as lists purchased from outside vendors.

On election day, Obama might have more than a million individuals volunteering on his behalf. That should scare the beejeesus out of the McCain campaign and the RNC.

There's nothing shadowy about this - it's an extension of what the Obama campaign has been doing since he entered the race. He's building a new Democratic infrastructure, regimenting it under his brand, and enlisting new technologies and more sophisticated voter contacting techniques to turn it from a normal GOTV effort into a lasting movement. The short-term goal is to increase voter turnout by such a degree that Republicans will wither in November, not just from a swamp of cash but a flood of numbers. The long-term goal is to subvert the traditional structures of the Democratic Party since the early 1990s, subvert the nascent structures that the progressive movement has been building since the late 1990s, and build a parallel structure, under his brand, that will become the new power center in American politics. This is tremendous news.

However, despite his calls that change always occurs from the bottom up, these structures are very much being created and controlled from the top down. In a laudable piece by Matt Stoller, and not just because he quotes me, he discusses how Obama is consolidating the elements of the party and streamlining the message.

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.

Voter Registration: Obama has launched a 50 state registration drive [...] 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.

Obama Organizing Fellows: 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.

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.

Field: (MyBO): 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 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.

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.

Stoller continues that the progressive structures built around opposition to Bush and partisan combat are outdated, in Obama's view, or at least not the perception he wants to carry across. Obama's bet is to mass such a large group that nobody could possibly compete with him in a left-right matchup from either side, and so he offers the options of "unite or die," to borrow the phrase from the John Adams miniseries. These are smart, new structures and a coordinated message to a degree that the Democratic Party hasn't seen. He's reinventing the Party and training a new generation of leaders, and leveraging technology in a way that will pay dividends for decades. Forget the "he can't win X subgroup" nonsense; what's at work here is so much bigger.

There are a lot of positives to this. The old leadership of the Party has become ossified, and Obama's takeover is an extension of the Dean movement, only on less explicitly ideological terms. To strip a Lanny Davis and a Terry McAuliffe of their power is frankly a welcome development. The figures in an Obama Administration will likely be core figures within the party for the next 20 years. The next generation will be characterized, as Chris Bowers perceives, with a set of more technocratic, good-government advocates, policy types who have a command of their specific bailiwicks, rather than the corporate-friendly DLC types of recent yore. Neither of these are necessarily progressive, but I'd consider the former group, motivated by policy over politics, far more palatable. And in addition, investing in voter registration and mobilization is the wisest use of resources that I've seen in the Democratic Party in my lifetime.

What's less positive is the centralization of all these networks and amplifiers, and how that will work as a potential governing strategy, AND where that leaves those groups who have grown up in the current polarized environment, and prospered. I don't think it's the end of them - even if the big donors desert some progressive movement groups, the Obama campaign itself has shown the ability of a self-sustaining small-donor network. In addition, some of these groups, like the 2004 structures built to run field campaigns in the Kerry election, were so ad hoc and combustible that they offered no long-term hopes for success anyway, and the single-issue silos of the past have always had a range of flaws.

Still, outside amplifiers are going to be needed to enact Obama's agenda. There's a myth that progressive groups like MoveOn would dry up without a lightning rod like Bush to oppose but I don't think that's true. People aren't only mad with Bush but really are seeking legitimate solutions and will get excited about them. If Obama is shutting out these organizers who are positioned to help him put through those solutions, can he possibly build a parallel movement big enough to combat the institutional barriers in Washington? I actually think it's possible he can, but the more important question is this: what happens the first time that an agenda item fails, when Congress suddenly finds its backbone and starts acting like an independent branch of government again, when a media which loves to raise heroes only to trash them engages in that familiar cycle, when Obama experiences a legislative loss? It's bound to happen, and the question is how he'll keep together his movement, built on his image, without outside help? I appreciate the washing away of the Clintonite strain at the top of the party, which I think is out of step with the historical moment, so much so that Hillary Clinton has spent three months running away from it. But wresting away ALL the power and consolidating it is I think a misunderstanding of how inside and outside groups can be mutually reinforcing and part of a more vibrant cultural and political movement, and how the culture is moving toward more decentralized, more viral, looser networks to organize. Obama's movement, based on unity and hope, is working because politics is of the moment, a fad, Paris Hilton. To sustain that, you must institutionalize engagement, civic participation, awareness and action, even in a non-horse race year, as a necessary facet of citizenship. And there's no reason to shut down reinforcing progressive structures that can keep it fun and interesting and vital.

We are not yet here to stay. The progressive organizations, the advocacy groups, even the blogosphere may be ephemeral if it doesn't sustain itself. If the flow of money keeps moving in only one direction, less people will be able to continue the work (I hate that Obama isn't paying his organizing fellows, perpetuating that myth of "psychic income" and barring entire classes of people from the process). Obama is not trying to sweep us off the table or anything, but certainly he has his own power base and his own ideas for how best to movement-build. There's a bit of overlap, but our role is going to be radically different and to a degree unwanted at first; see the Barack Obama MySpace page incident. There's a happy medium here, but it requires a great deal of consideration and study.