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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Final Thoughts on Netroots Nation

My brief posts earlier on the Netroots Nations gathering in Austin this weekend probably caught the mood (particularly the organizers’ efforts to downplay conflicts with Barack Obama) pretty well, but didn’t do justice to the variety of the workshops and panels.
A few highlights:
On Friday afternoon, I attended a panel called “How the Media Learned to Bend Over Backwards to Please the Right.” It featured historian Rick Perlstein, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, and blogger Duncan Black (a.k.a. Atrios), moderated by “Digby” Parton. Perlstein focused on the roots of the MSM fear of looking too “liberal,” citing passages from his new book Nixonland on how political reporters in 1972 would only write about Watergate if they could match the story with trumped-up and petty allegations of McGovern campaign rules violations.
Krugman talked about the very human tendency of political journalists–more thin-skinned than you’d think–to respond to heavy criticism of their “liberal bias,” even if it doesn’t actually exist.
And Black discussed the skewed and self-reinforcing perceptions that sensible Iraq War critics were marginal or even radical.
Refreshingly absent from this discussion were suggestions that the MSM’s drift to the right was attributable to some corporate conspiracy, or to the seductive insularity of Georgetown Cocktail Parties. What came across is that the conservative movement’s relentless efforts over decades to convince journalists that they had to counter-balance their own “liberal” biases paid off handsomely in self-conscious “on the other hand” reporting that sacrificed facts and reasons to a spurious “balance.”
Later on Friday, I also attended a very substantive workshop on “Iraq in Strategic Context” featuring Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent, Ilan Goldenberg and A.J. Rossmiller of the National Security Network, and Matt Yglesias of The Atlantic. This was a wide-ranging discussion of the surge, Iraq’s future, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and the overall U.S. strategy in the Middle East. The most haunting comment, IMO, was Ilan Goldenberg’s answer to a question about Iraq’s likely trajectory. The best-case scenario, he said, was “Lebanon.” The worst-case scenario was “Sudan.”
On Saturday, most attention was focused on the Nancy Pelosi forum with surprise guest Al Gore. But afterwards, I attended what was billed as a first-of-its-kind public presentation on the Obama’s campaign’s field organization philosophy, past, present and future. It featured deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand, New Media director (and former Blue State Digital founder) Joe Rospars, former South Carolina and now Ohio field director Jeremy Byrd, and former Georgia field director and now chief of the Obama Organizing Fellows program Joy Cushman.
The two major thrusts of the presentation were that (1) the Obama field effort is thoroughly based on the candidate’s own community organizing experience (both Byrd and Cushman were professional community organizers before joining the campaign), focused on finding and developing authentic community leaders, not just volunteers for cavassing and phone-banking; and (2) its objectives go beyond the campaign towards creating a 50-state infrastructure for progressive political mobilization in the long haul.
Having watched and listened to this presentation, I have to say this: if, as Obama-skeptics charge, his campaign is “selling Kool-Aid” about its revolutionary methods and goals, its sales staff have clearly drunk the Kool-Aid themselves. They were very convincing. I was particularly impressed by Cushman, who’s in charge of the “fellows” program that’s enlisting the campaign’s most effective primary-season community organizers for the general election and beyond. As she explained, she cut her teeth as an organizer for a right-wing religious group up in rural Maine some years ago (before evolving into progressive, but still faith-based and very local causes), and like Byrd, was attracted to the Obama campaign because of its organizing philosophy as much as for the candidate’s positions or ideology.
The one newsy thing the Obama folk disclosed is that they are building towards a voter registration drive for the week after the convention that will surpass anything of this nature that we’ve seen before.
If, down the road, the Obama campaign abruptly abandons its field program in all but a few very close battleground states, as campaigns before theirs have usually done, and as they could be forced to do in a tight race, then maybe the sort of talk I heard on Saturday can be discounted as a mid-summer-afternoon’s dream. But for the present, I’m sold on their determination to “leave something behind” in communities all over the country, if, for no other reason, to give an Obama administration a base of enduring support.

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