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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

TDS Strategy Memo – Part III — Dems must develop local activities that can evolve into enduring local community social and cultural institutions.

(This is the third part of a three-part TDS Strategy Memo. A PDF version of the entire memo is available here)
Immediately after Obama’s inauguration, there was a widespread sigh of relief and a collapse into exhaustion among huge number of Obama’s supporters. Responding to this sentiment, and occupied with the transition, the DNC and OFA made relatively few attempts to organize directly “political” activities and events or to build a formal network of “real-world” local organizations in the first several months of the Obama administration. The general view was that “everyone needs a break.”
This, however, reflects a severely limited definition of what constitutes “political” activity. In democratic countries around the world many political parties routinely support a wide range of grass-roots community activities that are not explicitly “political” but which play a significant role in maintaining their political support. They sponsor local soccer teams, hold street fairs, run youth clubs, manage pool halls, arrange holiday trips and organize hobby groups. Small businesses that support the parties put permanent banners in their windows and build their customer base around a sense of community cultural loyalty to the political party.
During 2008, the Obama campaign began to evolve in this direction. The “Yes We Can” campaign took on characteristics of a social movement rather than just a traditional political campaign. The explosion of creativity expressed in music, art, videos and other media were inspired by Obama but reflected more than simply a campaign to elect an individual candidate. There was a clear feeling that Obama represented a cultural movement of the young rather than the old, of the urban, hip and educated rather than the small town and traditional. The Obama campaign became a broad social movement united by a common outlook, sensibility and identity. The Republicans were the past and the Democrats were the future.
It is now vital that Democrats reignite this spirit and energy and find the ways to carry it into daily community life. To be specific the Democratic community needs to launch a renewed “Yes We Can” movement – not a narrowly “political” campaign to support Obama’s specific proposals, but a broad cultural response to the negativity, nihilism and divisive “real America” chauvinism of the Republicans. It must express an outlook and perspective that is based on hope for the future and openness to change.
There are two different sub-groups to whom this must be addressed – Obama’s natural constituencies and the broader group of “persuadable” voters who are open to his message. Each requires a distinct approach.
The first sub-group is Obama’s natural constituencies and social environments

College campuses and urban America – Some key steps in building a revitalized “Yes We Can” movement include building rapport with rock bands and DJ’s (e.g. by providing free items like specially developed high-quality designer clothing), sponsoring free rock concerts and art shows, Setting up special film screenings, book signings and neighborhood street fairs, engaging with the major social networks through art and music as well as narrowly “political” discussion and sponsoring sports teams in urban marathons, bicycle races, skateboarding and roller skating events.
Stores and businesses (e.g. coffee houses, bicycle shops, environmentally friendly products stores, independent bookstores) – some key steps include encouraging “Yes We Can” sales days, happy hours, special events and neighborhood parties and developing business-connected give-away “goodies” for display and distribution (coffee cups, chocolates, tire gauges, natural soaps).
Ethnic, political, social and community organizations. Some key steps include piggybacking on existing events and activities, incorporating “Yes We Can” motifs into ongoing programs and participating in organization-sponsored volunteer activities under a “Yes We Can” umbrella.

The first step in this process is to organize a major, coordinated re-launch of the “Yes We Can” campaign. Such a re-launch could begin with a national competition to create a comprehensive set of new music, new graphics, new logos, new art, new videos new slogans, new teashirts and posters for a renewed “Yes We Can” campaign. Such a contest can have dozens of awards for the best entries in specific genres (posters, videos, music etc.) and within specific states. The competition could be planned to culminate in a major live and online event with top stars, music and the awarding of serious prizes.
The success of a renewed “Yes We Can” campaign would ultimately depend on its generating ongoing “bottom-up” spontaneous grass-roots activity. There could be a closer ongoing connection with OFA and the DNC than would be advisable with the “Democratic Minutemen”, but the campaign should still not be administratively controlled by any official Democratic organization. Rather the renewed “Yes We Can” campaign should be loosely coordinated by a broad voluntary coalition of well-known figures in music and popular culture following the models of the “Live Aid”, “Farm Aid” and “We are the World” campaigns. In all of these cases a few well-known and passionately committed individuals took the lead in organizing their peers around a social issue campaign and stitched together an informal steering committee structure to make decisions.
The second sub-group a renewed “Yes We Can” campaign would need to target are the more open-minded, moderate voters in “red state” America

•Businessmen and women
•Blue-collar workers
•Religious voters
•small town voters

Despite the media images and clichés, not all voters in these categories are conservative. On the contrary, depending on the specific issue as many as half or more may actually be relatively “moderate” and open to Democratic candidates and to messages that are framed in the language and concepts of their broad cultural perspective. The 2006 election demonstrated that there are substantial numbers of “red state” voters who can be won by “heartland Democrats.”
In the current situation — in which Obama is struggling against declining poll numbers and stiff opposition — imagining an outreach campaign to this group may seem totally impractical. But such a campaign cannot be ignored until late in 2011 if it is to have any chance of influencing the election in 2012.
The predictable first reaction to a set of proposals of this kind is to argue that initiatives of this nature are important but must be postponed until the immediate challenge of passing a health care reform package is successfully completed.
This reaction is understandable but wrong. The setbacks to the health care campaign that occurred in August were in significant measure the result of the failure to begin systematic long-term organizing in January. By the time a health care reform package is passed this winter, new challenges will have already emerged that seem equally urgent and which seem to offer equally compelling reasons to delay long-term organizing once again. The result is a vicious cycle in which systematic long-term organizing never gets done.
Consider a simple and somewhat ironic fact: it is today much more difficult to launch a long-term campaign of this nature than it would have been in January when Obama’s popularity was at its peak and grass-roots enthusiasm was still high. Equally, six or nine months from now, it will in all probability be harder to launch such a campaign than it is today. At that time, hindsight will clearly suggest that September 2009 would have been a much more propitious time to begin such a campaign than “now” – whenever “now” happens to be.
The major problems that emerged for the health care reform campaign in August were severe and require careful rethinking of Democratic strategy. But the problems are not limited to the specifics of health care as an issue or the legislative strategy that was chosen to enact a bill. The setbacks also exposed profound weaknesses in the basic Democratic message strategy and in the strategies for mobilizing mass support and for building long-term pro-Democratic community institutions.
These problems affect the foundation of every future legislative campaign and every future election. Democrats must begin now to remedy the weaknesses exposed by this summer’s setbacks in the struggle for health care reform.

4 comments on “TDS Strategy Memo – Part III — Dems must develop local activities that can evolve into enduring local community social and cultural institutions.

  1. Otherish on

    Where you and I probably do part company is in our evaluation of how much Obama could have achieved had he followed a different, more militant strategy. That’s a big question, to put it mildly.

    Well, fair enough if that’s what you believe. I appreciate the acknowledgement of the elephant, and it does seem to me in purely political terms that the appeal to the grassroots will need to take account explicitly of what they have been through at Obama’s hands and that we are in fact talking not about “hope and smart change” but “where do we go from here with the President we have?” Everyone I know still has a tough time getting their heads around the fact that we thought “we” won the election in two branches of government and yet now it appears that in fact we did all that work so that Goldman Sachs and BofA and PhRMA could win the election. People are not going to want to lift a finger if there is not some assurance that some segment of the leadership understands what happened, sees it as a misfortune if not an avoidable mistake, and will, in essence, begin using our efforts *against* Obama–as Howard Dean now seems to be doing with DFA–to the extent that that is necessary in order to mitigate against continued regressive or status-quo policymaking and cooptation by these special interests.
    You say you don’t think much more could have been achieved, and I find that extremely depressing. It strikes me that:
    1. We have been waiting 29 years for a swing back from Reaganite greed, corruption, oligopoly profiteering and extreme fundamentalist social conservatism.
    2. We won this election pretty handily in both the executive and legislative branches. Recall how the GOP behaved after its thin win in 2004, claiming vindication and mandate, and Rove performing his triumphant psy-ops about a “permanent Republican majority.”
    3. As of the 2008 election win, the GOP and its policies and its figureheads were at an *all-time low* in popularity, very widely discredited, providing what seemed to be an unprecedented opportunity to connect the dots: we don’t just want to win so we can be in power but because these guys were *wrong*, wrong about supply-side, wrong about trickle-down, wrong about private-enterprise being less corrupt and more efficient than good government, wrong about regulation, wrong about the economy, not even right about their core platform of knowing how to fight a war, knowing how to protect citizens (Katrina), knowing how to trim the deficit, knowing how to grow the economy and nurture competition. They *lied* about being able to achieve those things and even about *wanting* to achieve them, because they were corrupt rightwing hypocrites, and we *caught* them at it. Will there *ever* be a better moment at which to be, if you insist on putting that way, “militant”?
    4. You use the word “militant” pretty lightly. We are not talking about Malcolm X vs. MLK here. On health, we’re not even talking about single-payer, much less “socialized medicine”, just a public option which most people actually support. On banking, we’re not talking about nationalizing the banking system, we’re talking about receivership for the biggest institutions that were the biggest malefactors, that even *Greenspan* thought should be in receivership, and that *everyone* agrees ought not to exist at that size if we are to avoid structural risks to the system. You have to remember how much relentless, hateful, truly militant work Reagan and his successors had to do to make everyone think it was moderate and acceptable for there to be only 4 big media companies and only 4 big banks, for giant insurers and for-profit hospital corporations to control 90% of market share in region after region. You don’t have to be left of center to know what that does to competition. ATT was broken up. And whatever you think about that breakup, it would seem pretty uncontroversial to demand that the SEC actually enforce real antitrust law and that if it had been doing so, things like News Corp and GE and JPMorganChase simply could not exist, their endless mergers would rightly have been blocked and the smaller entities would be not colluding but competing as the capitalists endlessly claim to *want.*
    5. In terms of strategy, this may be the President we have, and you may think we could not have achieved more in any case. But I think you have to admit that no attempt was even remotely made to achieve *even* the things Obama campaigned on explicitly in the election. When Rahm demanded that MoveOn stop advertising against Blue Dogs, AFAIK, MoveOn stopped. What *were* they doing instead? What possible use is it to simply lay down and not even *try* to get what you won the election *for*? It seems to me that the Democrats have long been criticized for being weak and mealy-mouthed and divided. Aren’t you afraid that there is some truth to this and that it actually breeds contempt among independents to see Rahm and MoveOn back down like this in the face of the Blue Dogs? You surely do not believe that Democratic “non-militancy” is going to win over the people on the other side of the aisle and glued to Glenn Beck? It is not going to fire up the base. You really think it will lure in a few “centrists”? Put another way, do you see Jane Hamsher’s ad about to run against Lincoln and Ross in Arkansas in direct violation of Obama’s wishes as “militant”? As a mistake? A tactical or strategic blunder? What argument would you make against it and what do you think would be more effective, working, as you say, with the President we have now? What would you be asking the grassroots to “fight” for if not ads like that?
    I do hope, at least, that if by some miracle Harry Reid of all people manages to end up with a public option after all, Obama will not try to sabotage it. The way Rahm behaves you’d almost think Obama would veto it.

  2. L.N. Letich on

    When I got this strategic memo last week in the form of a separate pdf email, I read it from beginning to end. Your memo was the first positive piece of news I had seen in a month. It was the first, and so far only, document that explained WHAT was happening to American politics and, more importantly, what can be done to combat it.
    Everyone I know has become increasingly depressed since the beginning of August. It has begun to feel like 1993 all over again, but even worse. I’m afraid that if Obama and progressive Democrats don’t prevail right now, it may very well be the last chance for progressive reform of America in my lifetime.
    I would be proud to be part of a group of “Democratic Minutemen.” Although I’m in my 50s and am plenty busy, I feel a need to make a difference. I am tired of being nothing more than a wallet, however, to every Democratic and progressive group under the sun, while the right wing forms social networks right and left and outmaneuvers us at every turn.
    I’ve put a link to your strategic memo on my Facebook page and asked people to read it. I’ve written Andrew Leonard of Salon, who recently quoted me, and asked him to suggest TDS and the memo as the topic of an article.
    But what more can I do to urge the right people to implement your strategic plan? That is the question, isn’t it? What other purpose is there for having sent this memo to an email list of interested outsiders like myself?
    BTW, I agree with Otherish that nothing Obama has yet said or done has been truly “game-changing,” or for that matter, “conversation-changing.” Much of the anger right now is whipped up by the right wing, but a part of it comes from real anger as the months pass and more and more average Americans feel economically dislocated. It seems that this administration has taken care of the corporate elite and has done nothing very noticeable for the average person, nor has Obama spoken clearly and forcefully against the plutocrats as FDR did. The anger he may be getting may indeed be partly his own fault, by not challenging that anger where it belongs. The Democrats will be crushed if Obama becomes identified as nothing but a meritocrat, as Clinton was.
    And with the latest economic reports showing that men have been very disproportionately impacted by this recession, losing three-quarters of the jobs lost, Obama had better start speaking to the generated anger, and quick.

  3. James Vega on

    Thanks for your really excellent commentary.
    I actually agree with your central point – that Obama profoundly demoralized his progressive grass-roots supporters with the decidedly un-progresive way he addressed the overlapping financial crises. A more traditional “fighting progressive” of the Welstone/Kuchinich type would surely have kept the progressive forces far more mobilized.
    The truth is that I was not so much ignoring the “elephant in the room” (i.e. the content of Obama’s policies) as I was taking them as a given. One might wish Obama was other than he is or that some other candidate had emerged, but I was starting from where we are right now with the president that we have.
    Where you and I probably do part company is in our evaluation of how much Obama could have achieved had he followed a different, more militant strategy. That’s a big question, to put it mildly.
    But again, thanks for taking the time to give a such a compelling statement of your perspective. It really adds an important element to the discussion.

  4. Otherish on

    I continue to be amazed by this site’s willful denial of the elephant in the room. The activists I know were not “tired” after fighting for Obama. They were *appalled* at his failure to get OFA started immediately laying the groundwork for difficult fights like finance reform, antitrust action, green economy, rail and mass transit, and public option healthcare. Obama and the OFA seemed to be silent on these issues or pay transparently empty lip service to them.
    You seem to be proposing almost exclusively process and packaging-oriented fixes. What about content? Activists have been heavily disillusioned by Obama’s post-election swing not just to the right but toward moneyed special interests, and by his betrayal of many of his campaign promises to the moderate, pragmatic left that got him elected.
    Instead of hope and smart change, we got:
    On Banking:

    o Choice of Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, both Sachs men, to run economic policy in the wake of a Sachs-led destruction of the economy. Overwhelming tilt toward the spirit of Rubin that had just been massively discredited, and away from the spirit of Reich who has been proven right again and again.

    o Attempt to tap Judd Gregg for Commerce. Judd Gregg who just a few days ago marked the anniversary of Lehman’s collapse by warning against proposed banking regulation that might “undermine risk-taking.”

    o Treasury Department actively intervenes with Dodd to try to weaken executive pay limits on corporations receiving taxpayer welfare via the bailout.

    o Despite a wide consensus–including rightwing economists, Greenspan, and even Lindsey Graham (!)–that nationalization (as in simply forced receivership under existing statute) was the only solution to the banking crisis, Summers and Geithner refuse. This did not appear right-wing, it simply appeared corrupt. It escaped no one’s notice that Sachs was one of Obama’s highest donors, and a chief beneficiary of Geithner’s kid-glove approach to the banks. A friend at a major philanthropic foundation said they’ve concluded Obama is “a plutocrat’s wet dream.” Really inspiring to all those young people who went knocking door to door for “change.”

    o The result: the biggest too-big-to-fail banks are now even bigger, having used taxpayer money to buy more banks and consolidate even *more*; their exec pay is back to 2007 levels and profits are up massively while unemployment is still heading for 10%, and small banks have been left to twist in the wind, further undermining what little competition remained (92 down so far this year, I think). Very possibly the largest outright theft from the middle and working class in the history of the country.

    o Obama has done nothing to capitalize on the transient outrage at the banking crisis and harness it for change, and he has led no real campaign to reform the financial system. He made a couple of speeches when populist frustration was peaking, and they rang awfully hollow. For example, he blasted executive pay even as his Treasury Department was working behind the scenes to weaken pay limits in the bailout legislation. How cynical can you get? Any idea how demoralizing that is to grassroots organizers? He told bankers he was the only thing standing between them and the pitchforks, and the question is, was that the right place for him to be standing? It’s very hard to interpret Obama’s actions in this arena. It’s a stretch to read it as bipartisanship, since the GOP never showed the slightest interest. But the banking lobbyists were sure interested. One thing is certain: the last people in the world Obama was interested in pleasing was the mainstream Democratic grassroots. But hey, maybe you can hide that fact with some marketing.

    o This combination of a soft-pedaled bully-pulpit and behind-the-scenes collusion from Summers and Geithner have meant that there is essentially no substantive banking reform, no exec pay reform, no real leverage reform, no antitrust action against the banks, no regulation of hedge funds, no reinstatement of Glass-Steagall rules, not even regulation of mortgage-backed securities. No doubt Obama will blame the lobbyists and Congress when they don’t pass even the tepid reforms he has proposed. But by not staking out a bargaining position somewhat to the left of the Congress and making a big campaign for that position, he has virtually guaranteed that the lobbyists can fly under the radar, and that little serious regulation will ultimately be passed. He’s a smart guy, so it’s hard to see it as other than intentional.

    o More recently, he stood by and did essentially nothing while cramdown was lobbied to death. No populist appeal, no outrage, no arm-twisting, nothing. Par for the course now, we’re used to it.

    On Healthcare:

    o Agreement with PhRMA to ban drug-price negotiation. Huh? I thought only a Bush could get away with the likes of this.

    o Indications that Emanuel and Messina actually promised Baucus and big health there would be no public option.

    o When MoveOn tries to fight the Blue Dogs over the public option, Obama has Emanuel yell at MoveOn, not the Blue Dogs. Excuse me, but if activists are “tired” *now*, it’s that they’re tired of Obama basically lying outright about his support for the public option.

    o Obama consistently refuses to insist on the public option, though he campaigned on it. By not only not insisting, but failing to prepare even a laughable semblance of any grassroots campaign for it, failing to call out big health’s outrages, failing to call out the Blue Dogs’ soft-money bribes from big health, failing to counter the rightwing lie factory, Obama virtually guarantees the public option will die. It seems absolutely transparent to everyone I know that he talks about it only to keep the left quiet (when he’s not having Rahm yell four-letter words at them for supporting it).

    On the Environment and Energy:

    o Obama did nothing to prepare a campaign for major investment in green energy, or in mass transit.

    o Summers charmingly intervenes personally to slash transit funding in the stimulus bill.

    o A friend from a pro-environment philanthropic foundation described the recent environmental meeting with Valerie Jarrett. She said the administration is 100% in favor of green everything. The guests pointed out that foundations have been devastated by the crash and have no money to bankroll any systemic change. Would the Administration commit to pushing for funds from Congress, DOE, etc.? Answer: not a penny.

    All that is leaving aside the Bushist positions on wiretaps and torture, and the rather ironical sellout of gay civil rights.

    So your proposal to reignite the grassroots is to have better marketing? At this point it just looks like more lipstick on a pig. But hey, good luck with that! Sigh.


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