This morning I awoke to a "public flogging of Patrick Ruffini" from Ralph Benko, an enthusiastic proponent of new media in the conservative movement in D.C. He was responding to my recent piece on the "Obama Disconnect" -- the lively debate surrounding Organizing for America and Obama's loss of grassroots mojo from the campaign.
Ralph attempts to connect my skeptical view of Organizing for America (and indeed the Obama campaign) to disdain for the tea party movement. It's a pretty big leap, and one superseded by my numerous posts on the actual tea party movement (here, here, and here).
Erick Erickson has come out in my defense but highlights this quote he says is "rubbing people the wrong way:"
Now, what happens when the campaign goes away? What happens when the enthusiasm inevitably ebbs and the hard work of governing begins? The immediate benefits of a bottom-up strategy become less clear. You revert to traditional instincts, where powerful obstacles stand in the way of getting things done — even amongst your base, and the wielding of massive political machinery cannot be left to amateurs.
This would be damning if it were actually about the conservative movement, but it's not. It's about Obama, and the shift from the faux-bottom up ethos of the campaign to the top-down work of governance. Actively throughout the post, I was putting myself in the shoes of a David Axelrod, first (some might say cynically) embracing the "bottom-up" energy of supporters in the campaign because of their financial and organizational strength, then jettisoning them when that enthusiasm invariably ebbed when they came into power. Isn't the story of Massachusetts right now the extremely fired up Republican base versus the listless, moribund Democratic base? The quote is a commentary on the reality of Democratic politics right now, not the very opposite phenomenon that is the dominant reality in the Republican party.
There is a legitimate question of what happens when a party comes to power, and the role of the grassroots in that shift.
There is no question that grassroots politics is harder when you are in power. That is just a fact that I think requires no further explanation. The MoveOn.org / OFA base is not in the room when Obama horsetrades on health care with Harry Reid, the unions, or the Blue Dogs. This invariably leads to compromises the left doesn't like. But, news flash: there were lots of things the right didn't like about the Bush Administration, from Medicare Part D to the bailouts. And I would remind Ralph that I advised a party-line Republican vote against the bailout.
Does the base tend to get sold down the river more when one is actually in power? Yes. Do I like that, as Ralph suggests I do? No. But I am also realistic enough to recognize that it's a distasteful reality and the price of actually being in office. And that's ultimately why you have a movement: to minimize deviation from principle as much as possible and to set standards for those pesky professional power-wielders.
Right now, the right is in a different moment. The role of the movement is not to serve as a check on the elected officials because the elected officials are largely irrelevant. The role of the movement is to expand the opportunities for capturing ground as much as possible. Massachusetts would not have been possible without the grassroots deciding to make this the cause it did. If we win, it will be their victory. And the fact that a victory will have a profound and lasting effect on the policy of the United States is the ultimate testament to things the grassroots can do that the establishment can't.