Either the Democratic Party destroys Barack Obama or he destroys the Democratic Party.
The party is a network of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours alliances between special-interest groups. Each group in the network of alliances has a political veto it can use to block the passage of a law until it gets what it wants. The arrangement amounts to a system of invisible filibusters or threats of mutually assured political destruction.
This way of doing political business explains the grotesque features of legislation that come out of Democratic-controlled Congresses. (The political basis for Republican grotesqueries is different, if no less damaging.)
In chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, the new president has himself a human jackhammer–but even Emanuel, using the patronage and power of the White House, will not be able to do more than hammer out some of the interest groups’ more outrageous demands. If President Obama is of a mind to engage in work more rewarding than wrestling with his party’s monomaniacally self-centered pressure groups, he will need more than Rahm Emanuel, talented though he may be.
Recommencing the old haggles between a Congress controlled by interest groups and the White House will not bring forth the change Obama has promised. If he is to avoid getting into that squirrel cage, Obama needs a new power tool that can give the internal politics of his party a makeover. He needs to be able to pass legislation that isn’t distorted by the finaglings of lawmakers who are literally or figuratively on the payrolls of outsiders with special needs and demands. (The nine Democrats and Republicans with serious ethical and legal problems who were re-elected the other day epitomize the problem.)
Obama has that tool, and he made it himself. It is the organization he created, comprised of the tens of thousands of people who put him in office. There has been nothing like it in our political history.
This is a president who comes into office owing nothing to his party’s money bags, a president who raised the money to build a large, national, independent campaign organization that, though Democratic, is still outside the old party. His ability to get donations from millions of individual contributors has made Obama a politically free man, even as Wall Street and its law firms pumped more than $70 million into his campaign.
The Obama organization is special, not only because of its size, but also because of the caliber of people in it, their intelligence, their idealism and their enthusiasm. If it is kept together, it will be the power tool he needs to reconstitute his party. Without it, the Obama administration will become the servant of special interest groups whose screw-you conduct has helped make the word “liberal” so disreputable.
Obama’s nationwide ground operation is the ideal instrument for making members of Congress vote the national interest, not the special interest, when major legislation needs to be enacted. It can keep the heat on in every Congressional district and every state and convince a wider public to accept unpleasant and difficult measures, such as a serious energy conservation program that might include such things as an end to short-haul airline routes, and a national 55-mph speed limit.
The conversion of the Obama campaign organization, which is composed of volunteers with lives of their own, into a tool of governance cannot be done with the top people sending down orders to the rank and file. For the organization to go out and sell the public on the Obama program, the people in the organization will have to be sold themselves–which means communication from the bottom up as well as the top down.
Call it participatory politics. Starting with inauguration week and using the Internet as only the Obamanites know how to do, through special events–meetings, seminars, three-legged races, whatever it takes–the people in the organization must be brought in, not only to cheer but to contribute.
With this strategy, the Obama organization can keep the administration in Washington from floating away from the rest of America. By providing a constant back-and-forth between the president and the people, Obama can develop and carry out a program of wide and lasting effect–change that we not only believe in but change that actually happens.