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David Plouffe, the former campaign manager of Obama for America, has one of the lowest drama-to-power ratios in American politics. As the Senate wrangling over health care hits solipsistic theatrics, even by Lieberman standards, the President’s confidante remains decidedly calm. During an extensive interview in The Nation‘s Washington office this week, Plouffe was typically even-keeled and sternly even-handed. He methodically criticized Republicans for playing politics with health care, and crisply parried liberal leaders who worry the Senate is in a compromising free-fall, headed towards a plan that might be worse than the status quo.
“We’re going to reduce costs for government, for families, for businesses,” Plouffe declared. “I have a great deal of confidence,” he continued, that “the principles the president laid out in the campaign” will be in the final package. A mounting number of progressives disagree, of course, upending the coalition for healthcare reform that had held together for months.
From Howard Dean to Sen. Russ Feingold, progressives now openly criticize Obama’s health care leadership, since each week’s concession for centrists seems to undo last week’s liberal fig leaf. Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas recently drew a line against the Senate compromises, arguing that “corporatist Democrats” watered down the bill so much it was “potentially worse than the status quo.” Then, pointing to a fresh fundraising email from President Obama keyed off healthcare, Moulitsas suggested that the DNC’s grassroots antennae are broken. Trying to fundraise off the compromise, he wrote, reveals “a lack of understanding of just how pissed the base is at this so-called reform.” Plouffe, who advises and consults for the DNC, has very little tolerance for that argument.
“I couldn’t disagree more strongly on the analysis of health care,” Plouffe said when asked about Moulitsas’s post. “We’re going to provide the ability for everyone in this country to get coverage and we’re going to end insurance company abuses,” he continued. “I have very little tolerance for this, because we’re trying to solve something that is a systemic problem that’s afflicted us for decades. It’s very hard. You’ve got the insurance companies, an entire opposition party arrayed against you.”
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Rank and file Obama supporters still have faith in the health care strategy, Plouffe insists, a conclusion he reached by listening to the “base” supporters who donated time and money to Obama.
“I’ve been out on a book tour, I’ve seen a lot of people–the base I view are the people who gave money and volunteered in the campaign. Now, there are plenty of people who are commentators who did that too, and I thank them for that, but the heartbeat of the campaign and the Obama organization are the people out there I’ve seen the past few weeks in St Louis, in Kansas City, in Philadelphia,” he said. (The Nation interview was part of Plouffe’s tour for “The Audacity to Win.” Plouffe also highlighted that literally two million people have taken some volunteer action for health care since Obama’s inauguration.
“It’s easy to take potshots, but I’m very closely in contact with the people who make up the heartbeat of the ground level of Obama for America, who are still out there,” he said. “We’ve had a couple million people out there volunteering for health care, quietly in communities, helping maintain support. It’s different from a campaign; you’re not out there saying, ‘Register eight voters today.'” Later he elaborated, “Is it the same intensity as the campaign? Of course not… I quite frankly am thrilled that over two million people, which is a lot, have done something on health care, meaning: they’ve gone out and knocked on doors; they visited a congressional office; they helped organize a press conference. It’s happened in all 50 states, and we think it’s a small part of why health care will get done.”
Yet while turnout sends politicians to Washington, it does not necessarily influence them after they arrive.
Sitting a block from The U.S. Capitol, as Tea Party protestors clogged the surrounding streets chanting, “Kill the bill!,” Plouffe sounded wistful about the current limits of people power in Washington.
“I wish that people who serve in the building out there, with the dome on it, were highly sensitized to their constituents. Not all of them are. The truth is you could have 15,000 people go to Republican members’ offices–they’re [still] not going to vote the right way on health care,” he argued. Plouffe did not give high grassroots grades to the Democratic caucus, either.
“A lot of these folks on the Hill didn’t have a relationship with our grassroots supporters,” he noted, referring to Dem-on-Dem activism like office visits and “Thank you” campaigns by Democratic activists in blue districts. “So the smarter candidates and elected officials are beginning to build relationships [with newly active Obama supporters],” Plouffe contended. He declined an invitation, however, to estimate the portion of Democratic politicians who fall in his “smarter” category. “I don’t know exactly how many have done it, but I think the ones that tend to be a little closer to the ground [are more likely to work with Obama supporters on a joint agenda],” he said.
Given the challenges of organizing Capitol Hill, Obama’s network is also, in a sense, tackling an even more ambitious goal–moving public opinion on healthcare reform across the country. Plouffe spoke about this experiment at length:
What we can do is educate the American people, answer their questions. I think one of the strengths of our grassroots organization – unlike most people in both parties – they treat their email list first as a fundraising opportunity. We’ve always had a more balanced approach. They are our message-deliverers out there. They do help us financially. They organize. They do all the important organizational work they did in the campaign … I think that you still see today, a lot of political organizations aren’t asking people to do much other than give money. And I think if you look at the three-year history of our effort here, it’s a very balanced approach and it’s one of the reasons we have such a strong relationship…
And as any couples therapist will tell you, communication is crucial to a good relationship. In his new book, Plouffe dishes one election secret that could shock even political junkies. With its focus on direct communication, the Obama Campaign invested resources in building its own dedicated television station.
The campaign didn’t literally start buying fiber-optic cables. But it did leverage its massive email list to relentlessly distribute original video online, enabling it to “essentially” create its “own television network, only better,” Plouffe writes, “because we communicated directly with no filter to what would amount to about 20 percent of the total number of votes [needed] to win – a remarkably high percentage.” Now, Plouffe contends the network is still broadcasting, and some commentators are still missing it.
“One of the things OFA does–they didn’t appreciate this in the campaign, and its not fully appreciated now–[is] reach over 10 million people directly,” he said, “that’s more than any nightly newscast.” The size of Obama’s YouTube audience has dipped from the campaign highs, naturally, yet Plouffe asserts that millions of people continue to open the emails and consume the content. “We’ve always had in the campaign, and now, very high open rates compared to other organizations and that continues.” By pointing to the share of Obama supporters who took action this year–“a little under 20 percent of our entire list”–Plouffe estimated that a solid portion of the network must still be listening and engaged.
Finally, Plouffe reprised a classic theme from his book and, by extension, the 2008 campaign. Polls and political motives still dominate discussions among the “political establishment” and “pundit class,” he lamented, which makes it harder to govern. As if to personalize the point, Plouffe opined on some of the junk that is no longer in his information diet. The man most directly in charge of maintaining Barack Obama’s reputation says that nowadays, he does not even read Pew or Gallup, two nonpartisan benchmarks for presidential polling. He may be the only strategist in Washington who ignores that data. Maybe it’s just not worth the drama.