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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Is Obama’s Activist Network Hobbled by the DNC?

In her article, “Disorganized: What Happened to Obama’s Massive Network of Grassroots Activists?” at The New Republic, Lydia DePillis reveals one of the key reasons for the post-election floundering of the activist coalition that was instrumental in electing America’s first African American President. In a nut graph, Depillis explains:

…The biggest problem was built into OFA’s very structure–the structure that Plouffe had wanted and Hildebrand had warned against. Obama’s people had created something both entirely new and entirely old: an Internet version of the top-down political machines built by Richard Daley in Chicago or Boss Tweed in New York. The difference (other than technology) was that this new machine would rely on ideological loyalty, not patronage. And that was a big difference. The old machines survived as top-down organizations because they gave people on the bottom something tangible in return for their participation. By contrast, successful organizations built mainly on shared philosophy tend to be driven by their memberships. Marshall Ganz, the legendary United Farm Workers organizer-turned-Harvard-professor and godfather of the Obama field strategy–he helped orchestrate Camp Obama, a grassroots training program for staff and volunteers–sees the command-and-control nature of OFA as a crucial flaw. “It’s much more an instrument of mobilizing the bottom to serve the top than organizing the bottom to participate in shaping the direction of the top,” he told me.

DePillis adds “…Being part of the DNC has neutered Organizing for America when it comes to pressuring moderate Democrats.” With regard to the battle for health care reform in particular, she cites the examples of ‘outside groups,’ including the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, MoveOn, and Health Care for America Now, which are “running hard-hitting ads that target foot-dragging congressmen,” while OFA’s ads “were gauzy and positive, mentioning no one by name.” As DePillis explains, “The White House couldn’t deal with Max Baucus in good faith if its ground operation was hammering him in Montana.”
DePillis is undoubtedly correct that there are built-in limitations that come with OFA operating as a DNC entity, particularly with an issue that has many complex facets, like health care reform. Activist networks work best with a simple idea, such as electing a particular candidate, or legislation that does one major thing. Perhaps the best test for OFA’s effectiveness will come when all of the Democratic reforms are reconciled into a single bill.
Multi-faceted legislation like the current health care reform packages being proposed, are more likely to experience fragmentation of activist energy. It’s easier to mobilize citizen lobbying around a simple idea, like no disqualifying coverage for prior conditions, than it is to get activists excited about a complex package that includes numerous provisions. It doesn’t mean that big package strategy for health care reform is wrong; It may be the right way to go at this political moment. But it’s reasonable to expect some dilution of grass-roots energy as the complexity of a reform increases.

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