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Can the Netroots Recondition Congress?

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, February 22 2010

Credit: Pavlov Museum

While, at this moment in early 2010, a vast majority of Americans believe that the American system of government is broken -- 86%, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll that came out yesterday -- only one in 20 Americans believe that the damage to institutional democracy in the United States is irreparable and the democratic experiment hopeless. Where does that hopefulness find its footing? Of course, the great promise of online politics was, is, that by tapping into the distributed world that the web has helped to cultivate, the channels might open up between the electorate and the elected, and great waves of participatory democracy might gush forth. Maybe the very nature of representative government isn't altered as a result, the thinking behind distributed democracy goes. But in this new world order, Congress and others in office would be forced into a relationship of greater accountability. Good, responsive members of Congress would flourish in a system of incentives that wasn't so dominated by the wealth-funded interests of a few or the hollow arguments of those with the establishment standing to get their voices heard.

Credit: ActBlue

The targeted, sophisticated grassroots drive now unfolding to provide political cover to the nearly two dozen Senate Democrats who signed the so-called Bennet letter, calling on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to include the public option in the great debate over health care reconciliation, is shaping up to be a something of a case study in how the "netroots" might force change by tweaking the legislative process as it functions today. The trick? To push Democrats out in favor of a progressive priority, and then make the experience a pleasant one for the senator or representative. Reward what is, in the eyes of the movement, good behavior, and create an environment where progressive political risk doesn't necessarily trigger in politicians a negative response.

The traditional "bad responses" of stepping outside the political pack are still present. Freshman Senator Michael Bennet has been getting beaten up in the Colorado press for his somewhat surprising choice to champion the public option's return after his Colorado colleague Jared Polis co-led a duplicate of the letter in the House. "Bennet Doesn't Get the Message" was the title of the Denver Post's editorial. "Is the Democrat appointed to the U.S. Senate last year standing on principle when it comes to health care reform," asked the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, "or is he playing to the political left as he faces a tough Democratic primary challenge?" The Pueblo Chieftain editorialized, "Anybody who thought Sen. Michael Bennet might be a moderate Democrat now knows that he is an unreconstructed ultra-liberal." Bennet, who was appointed to the Senate seat in Colorado after Ken Salazer's appointment as Secretary of the Interior in December of 2008, is facing a potentially difficult election fight this November.

Credit: Democracy for America

But the same organizations that worked to recruit Bennet as the public option's renewed voice in the Senate are strategizing ways to introduces some new carrots. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America have been hitting their email lists and otherwise circulating a call to support those who support the public option. The best case scenario is that other members, even ones in close races, see that a potentially dangerous political move can also be a rewarding one.

For one thing, there's money. Asks the PCCC and DFA on ActBlue: "Can you show Bennet he has support -- and encourage him to keep being bold -- by chipping in $5 to his campaign?" Since the fundraising call went live this weekend, $62,000 has been raised for Bennet on ActBlue. More than 7,200 people have donated as part of that campaign to not only Bennet, but to New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand ($36,000), who was an early signer to the Bennet letter and is facing a tough election landscape, and to the PCCC and DFA themselves, at $20,000 a pop -- money that goes back into the movement to make further campaigns possible.

As a point of comparison, a recent fundraising stop in Colorado by President Obama on Bennet's behalf pulled in some $700,000 for both his campaign and the senatorial committee. That, of course, trumps the $60k raised by the grassroots in this drive, but (a) he's the President and (b) small dollars -- the average donation on the PCCC/DFA "Public Option Heroes" page is $20 -- have some advantages. One plus in the small donor case is that many of those funders haven't maxed out their contributions to the candidate. Another strong point: according to ActBlue representatives, the campaigns targeted in an ActBlue fundraising drive get to hang on to the email addresses of their donors. That gives them a nice base of activated people who have already shown a tangible commitment to his or her candidacy.

And for members of Congress, worn down by relentless dialing-for-dollars, inane fundraisers, and vapid lobbyist meetings, the money raised online is like a Christmas/Hanukkah/what-have-you gift wrapped and delivered to them. The netroots have given them back a few precious hours of their life and some measure of their political and personal dignity.

CREDO Action, another group involved in the Bennet letter organizing campaign, has been leading a push to get letters of the editor sent to Colorado papers. Volunteer writers are prompted with the data point that, according to a Research 2000 Colorado poll, 58% of Coloradans are in favor of a public health care option. A friendlier news environment can change the tenor of the political discussion in Bennet's home state -- and making it somewhat less unpleasant for someone like Bennet to go out on a limb.

The Bennet letter organizing push draws inspiration from Pavlov. The more risk-taking members of Congress associate "doing the right thing" (putting aside the fact that you might not agree with the public option push) with a positive, rewarding experience, the greater the likelihood that other members of Congress will watch, learn, and repeat the good behavior. In some cases, the stimulus-response connection in the Bennet drive is actually visceral. A key component of the whip drive around the public option has been to have a swarm of phone calls to their Hill offices pushing for support. When the member finally relents -- perhaps just to get the ceaseless pealing of their offices phones to stop and the complaint of their staff assistants to quiet -- there is a quick burst of "thank you" calls praising the member for their support. And then the phones go silent, a welcome respite from the flood of sound.

Will all the money, email lists, phone calls, and letters to the editor be enough? For the perspective of organizers on the left, it really only has to be "enough" for other politicians to get the message that siding with progressive outcomes isn't all risk. There's reward in there too.