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Did The White House Turn OFA Into Microsoft?

BY Ari Melber | Friday, January 15 2010

My new report on the first year of Organizing for America is yielding some interesting responses, including notes from politicos who want to remain anonymous. Here is an email from a seasoned Democrat that suggests a broader context for Internet politics, and argues Obama's political operation has undercut its own ability to innovate:

Since OFA is a coherent organization, one can point to it and say 'this is unprecedented, and they are doing a great/good/bad job', but a post-Presidential period has happened before, forty something times.

It would be interesting to informally benchmark what's happening now against previous Presidential campaigns and what came out of them. There were a lot of important spinoffs of the Goldwater and Reagan campaigns on the right, not just generations of talent but new organization models like corporate PACs, direct mail, and New Right structures. In 2004, a lot of progressive activists on the various Dean, Clark, and Kerry bandwagons came into politics with a very specific set of initial searing experiences. And the people who ran the Obama campaign at the top came out of various campaigns from the 1980s and onward. Some campaigns held onto talent long-term, some didn't. Some had highly charged electoral energy, some didn't. Some were centralized, some weren't.

For instance, there was far less centralization for Democrats in 2004, which led to a much more diverse set of independent post-electoral efforts and innovations, many of which OFA later used. Tools like Blue State, Google Maps, Actblue, and the VAN just did not exist in 2004 (or were not mature and did not have enough talent to operate), so centralization simply wasn't possible. Campaigns began using email lists and field tools in a fairly standard way in the 2006 midterms, training a whole set of organizers and fundraisers, but these were tactics that Moveon pioneered in the late 1990s. And the 2008 campaigns saw the possibilities and failures of Meetup in 2004, and were able to plan and build tool sets to engage volunteers to capture their energy. What didn't exist in 2004, and what still doesn't, are mature tools to engage the legislative process that are as effective as lobbying.

And so we see lots of organizations, including OFA, using extremely blunt methods like phone calls, house parties, and office visits. From an institutional perspective, this was the biggest error of the Obama campaign. They centralized and consolidated the innovation that happened from 1998-2006, but kept a closed policy shop. They are Microsoft, stealing ideas and making them usable to elites in a clumsy electoral system. But the innovation is and always has happened elsewhere. So perhaps it wasn't an error after all, it is just what powerful top-down brands do.

Interestingly, there is now a flowering of innovation on the right after a very decentralized Republican 2008 campaign, versus the highly organized and centralized Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004. The moneybomb is the first but probably not their last innovation.

On the record, former Obama campaign aide Mike Moffo weighs in with a new essay on the OFA "year one" debate, (though he was not responding to the report), by stressing that success has its costs.

"Senior strategists have been deprived of the 'necessities of an unknown long-shot candidate,'" he writes, in contrast to an underdog primary campaign that welcomed more experimentation.
"Notice I use the term 'deprived of' as opposed to 'liberated from,'" Moffo adds, arguing that OFA's first year was sometimes unavoidably cold, but temperatures can improve:

OFA has been forced to share less information and turnover less responsibility than they would have otherwise liked to [as an underdog primary campaign]. During Year One, the arcane minutae of “beltway politics” has largely remained a “closed-door rationale” for decision-making—leaving the grassroots army out in the cold and feeling out of the loop.

Moffo's entire piece is here. We will continue posting responses to OFA's first year and the report. Readers can also email me anonymously at amelber at hotmail.