OFA AWOL. HRC DOA.
When Obama was elected, the question on healthcare reform was not if but when. Then the Tea Partiers showed up last August and changed the national conversation to "Healthcare reform, why?" I've wondered ever since where were the 13 million members of Obama's unprecedented Organizing for America (OFA) grassroots organization that was instrumental in getting him elected? And which we'd been promised would carry on as a standing army to advance Obama's ambitious, difficult, historic agenda.
So Rolling Stone's Feb. 18 edition has the answer, in this succinct, and devastating, feature by Tim Dickinson ("No We Can't"):
(Spoiler alert: David Plouffe, currently peddling his premature victory-round memoir, loses his halo.)
After the 2008 election, [David] Plouffe had taken OFA, previously known as Obama for America, and moved its entire operation into the Democratic National Committee. There, he argued, the people-powered revolution that Obama had created could serve as a permanent field campaign for the Democratic Party, capable of mobilizing millions of Americans to support the president's ambitious agenda. Fresh off the campaign, the group boasted 13 million e-mail supporters, 4 million donors, 2.5 million activists connected through the My.BarackObama social network and a phenomenal $18 million left in the bank. Even Republican strategists were staggered. "This would be the greatest political organization ever put together, if it works," said Ed Rollins , who was to Ronald Reagan what Plouffe is to Obama. "No one's ever had these kinds of resources."...
The decision to shunt Organizing for America into the DNC had far-reaching consequences for the president's first year in office. For starters, it destroyed his hard-earned image as a new kind of politician, undercutting the post-partisan aura that Obama enjoyed after the election. "There were a lot of independents, and maybe even some Republicans, on his list of 13 million people," says Joe Trippi, who launched the digital age of politics as the campaign manager for Howard Dean in 2004. "They suddenly had to ask themselves, 'Do I really want to help build the Democratic Party?'"
In addition, with Plouffe providing less input in his inner circle, Obama began to pursue a more traditional, backroom approach to enacting his agenda. Rather than using OFA to engage millions of voters to turn up the heat on Congress, the president yoked his political fortunes to the unabashedly transactional style of politics advocated by his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Health care reform — the centerpiece of his agenda — was no longer about mobilizing supporters to convince their friends, families and neighbors in all 50 states. It was about convincing 60 senators in Washington. It became about deals.
"There were two ways for Barack Obama to twist arms on Capitol Hill," says Trippi. "You can get the best arm-bender in town to be your chief of staff — and I don't think there'd be many people who would deny that Rahm is a pretty good pick. Or the American people can be your arm-bender. What I don't understand is why the White House looked at it as an either/or proposition. You could have had both."... [Emphasis added.]
What backfired, it turns out, was ceding populist outrage on health care to the far right. Because OFA failed to mobilize the American people to confront the insurance companies, it allowed industry-funded Republicans, like former House majority leader Dick Armey  to foment a revolt by the Tea Partiers, whose anger dominated the news. [Mitch] Stewart, the director of OFA, says the failure to anticipate last summer's town-hall ragefest was his. "Organizing for America did not properly plan for that first week of August," he says. "That was an error on my part." OFA scrambled to rally its troops, generating more than 300,000 calls to Congress on a single day. But the belated effort typified the group's first year. "It's always reactive and half-hearted," says [Markos] Moulitsas [founder of liberal website Daily Kos]. "The movement was built on the concept of big change — but they haven't gone after the things you need to do to enact change." Indeed, OFA's own numbers reveal a sharp drop-off in activist participation: All told, only 2.5 million of its 13 million followers took part in its health care campaign last year — and that's counting people who did nothing but sign the group's "statement of support."...
The failures of the past year, however, have left a strong sense of betrayal among many who once were Obama's fiercest advocates. "After all the sweat and tears of the campaign," says the creator of a popular pro-Obama website, "we were owed the opportunity to fight for something." Adds another, "We thought we had earned an ownership stake in the future of our country through this campaign, but that ownership stake has been revoked."
Had Obama let his activists lead the charge and gone to the mat for health care reform, would the outcome have been any different? "I can't say that we would have health care reform," says Moulitsas. "But people wouldn't be so demoralized. We'd have an engaged base still willing to fight for that change. And I tell you what: We would not have lost Ted Kennedy's seat."
Notes: 1. Rollins was later manager of erratic tycoon Ross Perot's first presidential campaign, in 1992. Rollins quit in mid-campaign on realizing his client was tuned to a frequency only dogs can hear. 2. Paul Begala, a 1992 Clinton campaign advisor, on Armey: "If stupidity ever goes to $50 a barrel, I want drilling rights to Dick Armey's head."