I’ve been travelling around the country for the past three weeks talking about my new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, and the question I’ve been asked most often is: what happened? How did we get from Obama’s historic election and a massive Democratic majority after the 2008 election to the emergence of the Tea Party and major Republican electoral gains in 2010?
Last night, at a book event at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, I posed that very question to Marshall Ganz, an expert on community organizing at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a key organizing theorist behind Obama’s grassroots political movement. You can watch the video exchange below:
Ganz explains how Obama moved from a "transformational" leader during the campaign to a "transactional" politician as president. Some of that, of course, was to be expected—candidates need to inspire while presidents have to govern. Governing, by nature, is often transactional. Nonetheless, transformational leaders find a way to get beyond transactional politics, Ganz argued, pointing to Ronald Reagan as a prime example. "Reagan shows exactly how to govern, which is aligning yourself with a movement outside Washington that is capable of mobilizing pressure on forces inside Washington so that you can change the rules of the game." That was also the model Obama promised to follow during the campaign, but has yet to really test as president. He played by the conventional Washington rules instead of trying to change them.
"He shifted from a politics of advocacy to compromise," Ganz says. Once inside the White House, Obama viewed his own grassroots organization "like a tiger you can’t control." The attitude toward his supporters changed from "Yes We Can" to "Yes I Can."
Yet for all the roads not taken, Obama’s political problems are, in large part, the result of a sour economy. But Ganz believes the president could’ve used the economic crisis to his advantage—as a mass teachable moment about the importance of government in a time of need. "If Obama has come in and taken control of the economic crisis, in the same way he dealt with the race issue during the campaign," Ganz argues, the Tea Party would not have flourished. But instead there existed a vacuum, and the Tea Party’s anti-government rage filled it up. It remains to be seen just how much longevity the Tea Party will have. "It’s more of a death rattle than a victory cry," Ganz said, the last gasp of a dying demographic.
You can see much more of the discussion, in six parts, on YouTube. Many thanks to Jim Moore for filming and uploading!