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Need for Obama campaign to “mobilize bias”

In the past I have been rather coy about my partisan leanings among students, and perhaps there are some outside family and friends who wonder about my politics. But with the exception of a year or two flirtation as a young Barry Goldwater supporter in college (hey, I was only a freshman), I have followed the family tradition of being a Democrat through and through. I probably would have been more open about all that were it not for a serious case of cynicism about politics that came from the assassinations of the 1960s (I was VERY active in the RFK campaign in 1968) and the norms of studying political science in graduate school (objectivity, and all that…). By the time I started teaching, my modus operandi was to take either side of an issue (usually the one opposite whomever I was speaking with) and to avoid any sense of being partisan.

Thirty plus years later, however, I found myself openly (although not outrageously) supporting and giving money to the Obama campaign in 2008, and grumble as I might about what I perceived to be the performance of the White House over the past three years, I remain an Obama supporter (although now I give my money locally, to Elizabeth Warren; more on that later).

I bring this up because I am getting increasingly frustrated at what I regard as the lack of concern in the Obama campaign for what can only be termed “political energy”, and the continued ineptitude of the White House as exemplified by the recent flare-up over the coverage of contraceptives in the health care plan. It isn’t so much the substantive issue that is bothering me (any reasoned analysis makes it clear that such a policy is needed and more than justifiable), but rather the inability of the campaign — Obama included — to take advantage of the situation.  Right as they may be, the Obama folks are letting the GOP (as usual) set the rhetorical agenda. This approach proved a disaster in the 2010 election — by the time some of the Democratic Party leadership figured that out, it was much too late.

I get the sense that we are seeing a possible repeat of 2010, except now we are talking about the complacency of an organized presidential campaign as it sits back and waits for the inevitable outcome of the GOP to be assured. Yes, they are very proactive in raising funds and putting together the machinery required for a national campaign that must reach out to the grassroots. Heaven knows, hardly a day goes by that we don’t get some sort of email from the national campaign, the national Party, the state party, etc.  But there is something missing — which brings me to the point of this post…. But there is something critical missing.

We speak of political campaigns as if the key to success is “organization” — and there can be little doubt that unless you have the capacity to literally organize at all levels of the campaign, from the precinct to the convention, from the raising of funs to getting out the vote, you are less likely to have a decent chance at winning. In that regard, I don’t think we have ever seen anything like the Obama effort in 2008; and even now they are constantly building that campaign infrastructure into a major and massive operation. It is as if they took the community action and machine politics ops from Chicago and put them into effect nationwide. (Some people see that as a negative — but in American politics that is definitely a positive if the goal is, as it should be, to win elective office.)

But there is another dimension to political campaigning that is being ignored at this time, and that is the energizing factor that is best captured by a phrase used decades ago by political scientist E. E. Schattschneider: the mobilization of bias. There are certain terms and phrases that capture a phenomenon that is otherwise difficult to explain, but the mobilization of bias has always struck me as the second key necessary to win over and generate commitment on the part of the electorate. Perhaps it doesn’t get used much because the word “bias” sends the wrong message — and perhaps it is best to think of it as the mobilization of political energy and commitment. Whatever word you use to describe it, the mobilization of bias is what Harry Truman did as he whistle stopped his way to reelection in 1948 — even without a strong organization behind him. It was, I believe, what Obama really achieved (intentionally or not) in 2008 — and it is what they seem to be missing right now, or at least seem to care little about at the moment.

The GOP gets it — and that was their secret in 2010 as the Tea Party stalwarts put most of their effort into mobilizing bias. Were it not for that effort (greatly aided by Fox, Beck, Hannity, Limbaugh and company), the Tea Party types would just be a bunch of angry John Birch types holding meetings and putting out newsletters. The fact is, whatever traditional election-focused work emerged from the Tea Partyites developed out of a sense of immediate (and short-lived) rage that was central to getting out the vote, and once the victory was theirs and as time passed it became evident that whatever organization they had developed would dissipate. Rage and indication have short lifespans.  In the long term the benefit goes to the organized — but the cost of ignoring or delaying bias mobilization in an election can prove costly.

We first witnessed the GOP advantage in effectively mobilizing bias with the Scott Brown election here in Massachusetts. It was clear to all of us that there was really no grass roots campaign behind Brown, just a strong political energy that came together at just the right time. The Dems had the organization, but it was essentially passive and complacent for too long — counting on a sure bet, they failed to turn out the voters. In my town of Beverly, Democratic officials report that 1200 registered Democratic voters failed to vote that election, and it was noticeable at the polling places as well. As is the tradition in these parts, as you approach the polling place you are greeted with many of your friends and neighbors standing along the sidewalk with placards of support for their candidate waving hello. In that special election there were a dozen or so folks — but I do not recall any for Martha Coakley, Brown’s Democratic opponent. The sure bet turned into a disaster.

The bottom line is that if the Obama campaign waits too long to engage in bias mobilization and focuses strictly on organizing and funding, they might wake up next November as well organized and well funded losers. The need to be proactive in their advocacy of policies that seem controversial — they need to anticipate and preemptively deal with every vulnerability the GOP might seize on, not by withdrawing or compromising (unless there is a better option), but by providing a full throated defense that grabs the rhetorical agenda of the moment and runs with it. Without their ability to dominate the conversation — that is, to capture and mobilize the political bias of the moment — the GOP has little to stand on. This is, in a way, an extension of the very successful “war room” approach of the Clinton campaign in 1992, but in this case they should not just hang about waiting for the attacks….

If there is a current model to follow, by the way, it is the Warren for Senate campaign. There is a first class organizing and funding effort going on down to the precinct level, and but it is fascinating to watch is how Warren has taken to the task of  energizing folks by directly through forceful presentations that anticipated — and in part helped spur on — the Occupy movement. She is spending lots of time now “introducing herself” to Massachusetts voters in an effort to undermine the “Harvard professor/elitist” attack, but the heart of the campaign remains that viral video where she takes stands in defense of the consumer protection policies she helped shape. She is setting a tone for the campaign, but more importantly she has mobilized that dormant energy required to beat Scott. And just as the Obama folks picked up on Deval Patrick’s 2006 campaign themes for the 2008 run, they seem to have latched on to Warren’s approach. That is all well and good, but it is time to do more of that now — sooner rather than later….

February 13th, 2012 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments