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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Liberating a Mandate Through Citizen Lobbyists

In Politico‘s ‘The Arena,’ Drew Westen has this harsh evaluation of the Obama Administration’s leveraging of its mandate:

Unless the Democrats dramatically change course or the new President puts his foot down and reminds the American people who they voted for, any new legislation will have to pass muster with co-presidents Collins, Specter, and Snowe, and their shadow cabinet of Cornyn, Boehner, Shelby, and McConnell. The new co-presidents will not be able to do the kind of damage their party did over the last eight years, but they will be able to prevent the Democrats from fixing it—and to allow the radical conservatives to say “I told you so” in two years and take back large swaths of the House and Senate. If somehow this stimulus package succeeds, they will be able to claim that it was their changes, their tax cuts, and their “fiscal restraint” that worked.

Ouch. I’m hoping Westen has overstated the case here, especially insofar as his prognosis for the ’10 elections are concerned. Less than a month into president Obama’s term seems a little early for d.o.a. pronouncements. Still Westen may have a point about the need for some bully pulpit to rally supporters, which has been well-noted by Ed here at TDS and others.
Digby has an interesting take on Westen’s argument, affirming his “good case that winning elections required appealing to emotion,” but adding,

I never agreed with him and some other advisers, that people didn’t also need to vote on the basis of substantive political argument. If you don’t ground politics in ideas, it’s nothing more than show business (or religion.) And while the Republicans are great showmen, they very definitely ground their politics in ideology. They sell it with emotion, to be sure, and it’s completely incoherent when you scratch beneath the surface, but it’s there. It’s what they call “principle” and it brainwashes people to sell out their own self-interest without knowing they are doing it.
…there is a consequence to refusing to fight campaigns on ideology and present those ideas as a cogent set of political principles. Right now, the Democrats are basically assuming that people are hurting enough to find the Republicans reprehensible for trying to obstruct the help they need. That’s a pretty risky strategy….Democrats do themselves no favors by looking for magic bullets. What Westen (and Lakoff before him) prescribed was invaluable. But they were never adequate. Ideology matters and the Democrats have to explain theirs and attack the Republicans’.

Both Westen and Digby provide important insights here. But it’s not quite enough just to call for a more energetic presidential bully pulpit and a more vigorous statement of ideological clarity. What seems to be missing thus far is a commitment and a structure to transform Obama’s prodigious campaign assets into a strong, responsive citizen lobby. Obama does have a potentially powerful, but as yet undeployed asset in his massive mailing list of supporters, who wait to be mobilized as citizen lobbyists. He has been sending out emails to his supporters. But I’m wondering if a more formal structure, perhaps a multi-state network headed up by his best campaign workers could be called together and organized into a legislative task force, so that they have a clear identity, instead of just receiving emails urging them to action. It hasn’t really been tried before. But the potential for such an organization has never been stronger — and the need has rarely been more compelling.

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