Monday, November 3, 2008

"Process Story"

I spent this afternoon alone.

It was an unseasonably mild day in my favorite season:  fall in the midwest.  The sky had patches of blue peeking through billowy clouds that reflected a shade of grey that only appears in the autumn.  I kicked through fallen yellow leaves, leaving very nicely designed and printed door-hangers on a list of houses in Dev's turf.  We've stopped trying to convince people to vote for us. Now, it's GOTV:  Get Out The Vote.  So we go to our people and make sure they remember to do it.  I spent the afternoon listening to '80s music on my iPhone, door-hanging, and checking names off the list.  It was a delightful walk, and helped ease me into a peaceful fatalism about tomorrow.

One of the names on my turf- no joke- was Luke Skywalker. The list said he was 54 years old, so he couldn't have been named for the movie character.  And this list when generated from the DNC's database of registered voters, so it couldn't be joke.  It turns out Mr. Skywalker is a local prosecutor.

So I guess the Force is with us.

I ended up with six extra door hangers, so, sadistically, I left them on doors of people with McCain-Palin signs in their yards.

30 minutes after I returned, one of them was on the phone with our office, demanding we come back and remove it, claiming that he didn't want to waste the time removing it, himself.  

He, of course, had spent much more time getting our number and calling us to complain than he would have spent throwing away the door hanger.

Last Wednesday, it was like someone flipped a switch and suddenly our strip mall office was awash in volunteers, calling and prepping materials.  Mid-afternoon that day, Cosmin arrived in his truck with a load of printed materials to include with our packets.  Over the course of two days we received multiple truckloads- tens of thousands of pieces of glossy, professionally-designed literature.  It's staggering.  Door hangers.  Brochures.  Flyers.  All reminding people to vote for Obama.  

The design of all of this "lit" reflects the color and graphical theme of all Obama campaign materials for the last year and a half, one more way in which the Obama campaign has been conducted like a high quality marketing campaign.  Our lit and merchandise has represented powerful branding in the way companies like Apple and Nike have a distinct, recognizable aesthetic that reflects style and quality.

On Friday, which was a very late night, a team of us worked with paper cutters, chopping up sheets of xeroxed flyers reminding people of the location of their polling place.  Hour after hour of lining up legal sized sheets on a paper cutter and then... whomp... whomp... whomp...  Then bundling them into precinct-size stacks.

The pure amount of paper we bundled and distributed in a six day stretch could have denuded the forest moon of Endor.  Packed and delivered like UPS trucks.

And this was just Canton, Michigan.

When GOTV kicked off Saturday morning, it was a rather orderly affair.  We nailed down our procedures the night before and were all over it.  It's amazing, because it's a bunch of young people and volunteers running the show here and no one has done this before.  Yet it functions like a powerful machine.  I am in awe.

We had a high "flake rate" on Saturday, a beautiful day that had both Michigan and Michigan State playing at noon.  Almost half of our scheduled volunteers did not show.  On Sunday, however, the room was again packed at our three canvass launch times, and by late afternoon we were out of packets to send out on the street.  After hours, we compiled packets for the next day.

I have spent much of the weekend running between offices in Inkster, Dearborn, Ann Arbor and Woodhaven as we scramble to re-allocate resources- money, materiel, and troops- to where they are most needed for this final push, all while prepping materials and greeting volunteers.  I have been playing a "utility man" role.

It is now Monday night, and I haven't spent a dollar on food since Friday lunch.  Part of the planning of mobilization of this operation was enlisting volunteers to bring in food, and we have had all manner of pizza, pasta, hot dogs, chili, Subway party subs, fresh fruit, vegetables, salads, sweets... it has been a nonstop buffet here keeping us fueled.

And it's a good thing, because I am worn out!  A 12 hour day has come to be a light one.  You would not know to watch us that we're polling 15 points ahead in Michigan.  People are focused and fighting.  There is an amazing common sense of purpose.  

We were having a discussion of poll numbers during a slow period, and I noted the composition of the group:  myself, Dev (Indian), Summer (a young African-American), Roscoe (a middle-aged African-American), Bianca (a young Romanian), Betty (a young Asian), Barry (a 40-something Jewish guy), as well as a middle-aged white couple that have been volunteering as long as I have been here.  When I see a diverse group like this, truly the American story, I am amazed at the gall of Republicans, a largely homogeneous crowd, who continue to attack Democrats as being less American than they.  When I look around the room I have been working in for weeks now, I see that Democrats don't just use "unity" as a flowery mantra.  They don't just preach it, they practice it.  Yet many Republicans view conservatism as the only true form of patriotism and once again validate those who see them not as uniters, but as dividers intent on conquering the country in the name of their ideology.

Tonight, insh'Allah, God willing, we are on the eve defeating the forces of divisiveness, of class warfare, and take the first step towards repairing the damage wrought by the ideological battles of the '60s fought decades past their relevance, and a Republican organization that has sold its soul to corporations and religious zealots and damaged the nation both inside and out.

Barack Obama is not messianic figure.  He will not be able to fix a broken system just with the power, however formidable, of his leadership.  But for the first time in years, Americans will be called upon to come together as one to solve gargantuan problems, and never in our history have we come up short when faced with daunting challenges.  If the intelligence, organization, discipline, strategy and vision of his campaign is any indication, we may soon have a leader capable of rallying people to a common cause.  And if the Fox News crowd can put down their swords and realize that we have many threats to the nation and liberalism is not one of them, you might really see something here.

Tomorrow is election day.   So I leave you with some Tom Friedman, from his column on Saturday...

So, bottom line:  Please do not vote for the candidate you most want to have a beer with (unless it's to get stone cold drunk so you don't have to think about this mess we're in).  Vote for the person you'd most like at your side when you ask your bank manager for an extension on your mortgage.

Vote for the candidate you think has the smarts, temperament and inspirational capacity to unify the country and steer our ship through what could be the rockiest shoals our generation has ever known.  Your kids will thank you.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


I drove home to Chicago for a two day respite in the rear area.  I did laundry, played in my Wednesday night touch football game, and slept in my own bed for two nights.

My buddy, Jason, rode back up with me on Friday.  I picked him up at his apartment in Hyde Park, mere blocks from Barack Obama's home.  I informed him (Jason, not Obama) that I was down to about a quarter tank of gas, and we'd stop once we got outside of the Chicago area, where it would be a 30-50 cents per gallon cheaper.  No big deal.

But as we always do, Jason and I got into some good conversation, which always makes a drive go faster.  I noticed the warning light on my gas gauge around the Indiana/Michigan state line, but once again engrossed in conversation, missed the exit at New Buffalo, where there were multiple gas stations.  A few miles down, at the next exit... we had nothing.  So we got back on I-94 and once again exited a few miles down.  Here there were some signs pointing towards various "resorts", so we followed a country road for about a mile an a half.  About half of the homes along the way featured Obama yard signs, which was fairly surprising for this pastoral a setting.

We dead-ended at a small town along a railroad line.  While at first glance this was a sleepy town, it featured an espresso shop and an art gallery.  Surprisingly urbane, if not urban.  Unfortunately, I was not in need of coffee or art.  What I needed was gasoline, which I suppose makes me no different from the rest of the country.  My own lack of energy independence was more urgent, however, and Jason and I looked at each other, trying to guess which direction looked more civilized and might have a gas pump nearby.

We turned left, and immediately Jason spied an Obama field office.

We couldn't find a gas station, but we could find a field office.  

Ground game, indeed!

We parked in one of the two remaining gravel parking spaces in front of the little shack... the spaces remaining because they were pretty much under water from hours of rain.  Inside was a campaign center that was much better equipped with Obama chum- t-shirts, buttons, bumper stickers- than our typically depleted office in exurban Canton.  I identified myself as a fellow campaigner and asked where I could find the nearest gas station.  The older gentleman behind the able cocked his head and assumed a bemused expression.  This could not be good.

"That would probably be in Sawyer," he said.  Go left out the door, and it's two stoplights down."


"About 8 miles," he continued.


I didn't know if we'd make it but, I figured, we at least knew who to call for help if my car sputtered out along the way. As we followed the train tracks we saw pizza places, banks, more art galleries... how on earth did anyone drive to any of these places without gas?  We reached the second light (which was only about four miles down, not eight) and turned right.  There, clustered around the next exit on 94, were your typical assortment of gas stations and fast food.

Hyperbolic lesson of the day on Obama's ground game:  there are more field offices than gas stations in Michigan. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Politics, Culture and the Death Rattle of the Modern GOP"

"To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that which shows what it might become.  America - this monument to the genius of ordinary man and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the 'no' into the 'yes' - needs citizens who love it enough to re-imagine and re-make it."

Princeton University Professor Cornel West, as quoted by Howard Fineman in his philosophically brilliant "The Thirteen American Arguments".

"We believe the best of America is not all in Washington D.C.  We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all you hard working, very patriotic... very pro-America areas of this great nation.  This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans.  Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and fighting our wars for us.  Those who are protecting us in uniform.  Those who are protecting the virtues of freedom."

Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, 10/16/2008, in North Carolina.


West eloquently defines patriotism in a way that Republicans, today, have largely repudiated.  The U.S. Constitution has been a living, breathing document for over two centuries.  America in its very foundation has been a living embodiment of a social work in progress.  To wish to see America improve, to recognize her fallibility and continue the quest for a more perfect Union is not anti-American.  Belief in an unrealistic American perfection and adherence to an idyllic 1950's "Leave It To Beaver" psuedo-reality that never truly existed is not patriotism by any reasonable standard.

However, Republicans for 40 years have used a strict interpretation of the Constitution (which would, of course, dictate that Barack Obama is 3/5 of a citizen) as their shield and dirty, divisive politics as their sword in a culture war that revolves around abortion and social issues and has lived, politically, in the red state/blue state map created by Pat Buchanan's 1972 "Southern Strategy" for Richard Nixon.

Conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times decried the rotting from within of the GOP as evidenced by the excommunication of their own intellectuals:

"What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole  The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.  

"The Republicans have alienated whole professions.  Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party at 4-to-1 rates.  With doctors, it's 2-to-1.  With tech executives, it's 5-to-1.  With investment bankers, it's 2-to-1.  It took talent for the Republicans to lose the banking community."

In this context, how telling is Palin's speech?  Yes, exposed as pandering to an audience, she later walked back her comments and clarified that if rural North Carolina is "pro-America", there are not necessarily other parts of the country that are anti-America.  This, however, is a false choice, a dichotomy that does not exist.  We are all equally American.  Just some parts are more equal than others.  What Palin did not later withdraw from was the notion, as she waxed poetic about the oh-so-American virtues that reside specifically in small towns, that some parts of America are more emblematic of the America that she chooses to identify with and that the Republican Party has defined and molded itself to serve.

And serve them loyally (or at least market to them effectively) they have.  In a 2000 US Census Bureau study of the social impact of education on a state-by-state basis, 7 of the top 10 states voted for John Kerry in 2004, while the bottom 17 voted for George W. Bush.

While Palin would not cop to an "us vs. them"/"good vs. evil" orientation, Republican rhetoric has descended to McCarthian depths in recent weeks.  McCain, after saying he would never question Obama's patriotism, later came out and said of his opponent, "That's not country first, that's Obama first!"   Palin, herself, has literally called Obama a socialist.  Now, to the average voter, the word "socialist" evokes images of Communist totalitarianism.  Yet all free countries are to some degree a public-private partnership, and if you have gone to a public school in America or received an unemployment or Social Security check, you have participated in a socialist institution.  Most Western nations have an even greater socialist reach, and manage to do so without impeding upon the basics of free market principles.  They simply lean further to that side than we do in the name of stability and not leaving anyone behind. 

And these are arguments, as Fineman insightfully points out, that we need to have.  The ability to have these arguments vigorously and publicly and, when possible, inclusively and civilly, is what distinguishes our brand of Democracy from others or from the systems from which the Founders fled.  But their ideology under siege, Republicans have increasingly built a Maginot Line to protect Palin's "pro-American" parts of the country from the scourge of liberalism. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann proposed a "patriotism test" for members of Congress, and lumped in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright as part of a leftist, anti-American monster supporting Obama.  North Carolina Congressman Robin Hayes, warming up the crowd for McCain today, went beyond mere implication: 

"Liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God." 

Democratic rhetoric does not employ "conservative" as an epithet, but Republican rhetoric consistently does so with "liberal".  And while Democrats compete amongst each other to prove who can best work across the aisle, Republicans jockey for the title of truest believer.  Democrats have not banded together to pick apart their former colleague, Joe Lieberman, after he became John McCain's top confidant and surrogate.  Yet the Republican rush to throw Colin Powell, the leading respected military voice of his generation and former Bush Secretary of State, under the bus has been saddening, if predictable.   

And while liberal talk radio exists on the fringes of the public discourse, conservative talk radio dominates southern airwaves and Rush Limbaugh is an icon.  Fox News was founded to present strict partisan propaganda.  Fineman again:

"Most of humanity pays allegiance to only One Eternal Answer, whether it's a sacred text or  'revolutionary' party.  I first saw that dangerous allegiance as a student on a visit to the old Soviet Union in 1970.  On my first night in Kiev, I checked into a hotel.  The spartan room had a desk with a lamp and a modern looking radio.  As I examined the radio more closely I noticed something odd - and chilling.  It had no dial, only an 'on/volume' switch.  I was in a country with only one voice - the government's."

While liberals who watch MSNBC and CNN to follow politics can handle, and in many cases relish, seeing strong conservative voices, be it William Bennett on CNN or Pat Buchanan, Joe Scarborough, or Tucker Carlson on MSNBC, Fox News and conservative talk radio represent conservatives' "one voice", and their "sacred text" is a literal reading of the Constitution (as a decoy for their attack on Roe v. Wade) in the way their supporters on the religious right choose (or attempt) to interpret the Bible.  Like fans of a sports team who think that every national announcer and umpire/referee is against them, they decry a liberal bias in the mainstream media, inflate it into a conspiracy against their way of life, and retreat behind their ramparts, with guns firing at the invading liberal Huns.

The intellectual wing of the conservative party has seen this happening. Powell, Brooks,  Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan, the Washington Post's George Will, the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, former Bush aide David Kuo, and former Nixon aide John Dean have all seen this departure from Goldwater conservatism into the cesspool of the neoconservative movement, a departure from productive ideas into a destructive ideological struggle.  None are supporting John McCain this year, a stunning and historic rejection of a candidate by his own party's intelligentsia.  And the Chicago Tribune, whose founder, Joseph Medill, was also one of the founders of the Republican Party, a publication that in 180 years has never endorsed a Democrat, this week endorsed Obama.

The culture war, elevated into a crusade, has eaten the Republican party from the inside.  The always-irreverent Matt Taibbi, in "The Great Derangement", offered this take:

"In the pointy-headed northeastern America of my experience, there were no legends of wandering prophets, no dinner table discussion of personal salvation.  But in the rest of the country you had this weird dichotomy:  an advanced industrial economy confidently riding the superconductor and the microchip into the space age, while most of its population hurtled backward away from the Enlightenment, living out a Canterbury Tales-type quest for revelation in a culture dominated by superstition and mystery."

Reasonable conservatives are left with a difficult choice:  alignment with a radicalized form of their own beliefs, or voting with the other party just to try and force their own side back into line.  Whatever their choice may be, the moderate right has no voice right now, and the unfortunate result could be that the entire right gets a seat on the sidelines for a few terms while they come to terms with their inner demons like an emotionally troubled person going to therapy.  The nation may be on the verge of an intervention on the dysfunctional right side of the aisle to restore some civility to the necessary debate.

Friday, October 17, 2008

"Almost lost it..."

I was on my way out to lunch, computer bag over my shoulder, the delightful October air just inches from my nose, when a middle-aged couple walked into the office.  They approached the two older ladies who were manning our front desk and said, "We have some questions about Senator Obama."

I always relish the chance to see what is going into someone's decision-making, so I stopped at the door to listen in.

"If he's elected, how will he be sworn in?" asked the husband.  "Will it be on the bible?  We heard it would be on the Koran"

"Oh my god," I muttered, drawing a glare from one of the front desk ladies.  So the hell what if he IS a Muslim, for (ahem) God's sake!

Calmly (certainly compared to me) and gently, the elderly woman manning the front desk informed them that Obama would be sworn in on the same family bible that he used when he was worn into the Senate.

"And is it true he doesn't like to salute the flag?"

I kept it holstered the second time around.

"No, no," they were told reassuringly.  "Seantor Obama is a patriot."

"OK," the wife said.  "There are a lot of things we like about him.  We just wanted to ask, because we got some e-mails..."

I began to realize I was face to face with two honest to god Reagan Democrats- Hillary Clinton's "hard working white people".

And you know what? Hillary really was right when she said Obama couldn't connect with them.  Well, sort of.  I think it's just as much that they can't connect with him.   

In a matter of just over 60 seconds, I went from unfiltered disgust to a bit of grudging admiration.  They got splattered by the Republican manure spreader, and while they didn't know immediately which brand of bullshit was being disseminated, they at least had a bullshit meter tuned enough to know it didn't smell right, and went right to the source.

I had even greater admiration for the ladies at the front desk of a field office in a Republican district, and for everyone who has been in the trenches here for months, deeply invested in the campaign, and can hear these kinds of questions and react with cheerful equanimity and simply fight smears with truth and let the people decide.

John McCain has, in all three debates, failed the temperament question, but I damned near failed it, myself, today!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"12 Quick Hitter Observations From The Final Debate"

1.  McCain continues to fail on the temperament question.  With all of his making of faces and disjointed answers and condescension and sarcasm, he simply doesn't look Presidential. On a subconscious level (or a conscious one), people are imagining each candidate dealing with a foreign head of state, and McCain is failing that test hugely.  NBC's Norah O'Donnell conducted a poll of independent voters before and after the debate on their comfort level with each candidate as President, ranking from 1-10:

Obama before:  6.2
Obama after:  7.4
McCain before:  6.4
McCain after:  4.3

This is striking.  Prior to the debate this sample of independent voters viewed McCain and Obama similarly on the threshold question.  But after... not so much.  There is a powerful Kennedy/Nixon dynamic on display, the talking heads aren't discussing it, but the insta-polling is reflecting it.  Obama's calm demeanor and simply defusing McCain's assorted attacks are reassuring to a voting public that is looking at these two men and trying to gauge who will take care of them in crisis.  Chuck Todd may loathe insta-polls, but in this election season they have been a strong predictor of where the real polls, including his own NBC News/WSJ poll, are heading.

2.  If you wanted to score the debate like a boxing match, you could make an argument that McCain won by a few points.  However, he needed to put Obama on the canvas, and no one can make the case that he did so.  Obama is in position to run out the clock right now, and his main goal was to win on the Presidential aesthetic (check) and avoid the big mistake (check).  He didn't engage, didn't try to win points, just parried McCain's blows.  He was cautious, but likely appropriately so.

3.  McCain may have had the killer retort of the night when he said, "I am not President Bush.  If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."   But here's the problem:  as Obama pointed out, he still can't escape the similarities in policy, and the argument might resonate as a summation today if he had been running the "I'm Not Bush" campaign all along instead of the POW/"Country First" brand all while tacking to the right and running a Karl Rove-style campaign.

4.  The pundits made a big deal out of McCain snidely laughing off the matter of the women's health exception on the issue of abortion while citing the health of the mother as the core of an extreme "pro-abortion" position.  (Once again, McCain was pandering to the extreme flank of his own party with hard line ideology, and in so doing turned off pretty much everyone else.)  What was under-discussed was the last line McCain threw in there.  He said he had no litmus test for judges on the abortion issue.  But then he proceeded to say that he didn't believe any judge who agreed with Roe v. Wade was competent!  Simply a litmus test by another name.  And Obama made the strongest point on the issue when he exposed the traditional Republican divisive rhetoric when he pointed out that no one is pro-abortion. 

5.  McCain's constant beating the drum of Republican ideology- small government, low taxes, "rights of the unborn"- are little more than preaching to the converted.  Ideological arguments in a time of tangible crisis do not resonate with undecided voters or those with a slight lean.  And after eight years of George W. Bush, people no longer want an ideologue.  People want a problem solver.

6.  Did anyone notice that McCain once again called for an across the board spending freeze, but proposed increased support for at least a half dozen governmental programs? And he continues to say that he'll veto any bill with an earmark as President, yet just voted for a bailout bill with over $100 billion in pork.  He continues to display a rank inability to see or communicate nuance in any issue, and is seeking to, as George Will continues to point out, substitute certitude for comprehension.

7.  The one policy area where Obama clearly won was on health care, where he laid out in concrete terms what his plan and what McCain's plan would mean to the average consumer.  McCain again comes at it from an ideological tack, speciously painting Obama's plan as a form of socialized medicine, and probably even believes that the $5000 tax credit will be enough for everyone- even though independent analysts have debunked the notion repeatedly.

8.  Obama's best punch of the night was the one he never took at Sarah Palin.  He didn't want that to be the story.  The rest of the world has taken care of this for him.  People have made up their minds on Sarah Palin.  While McCain preaches to his choir, Obama simply enjoys the music.

9.  My preferred answer for Obama once William Ayers came up would have been the following:  "If we want to discuss our respective associations and boards we served on, John, we can talk about your membership on the board of the U.S. Council for World Freedom.  Can we not mutually agree that I don't condone terrorism, you don't condone anti-Semitism, and just get back to work on the issues of the American people?"  Obama took the cautious approach and coolly explained his associations and went on.  He may have watched a hanging curveball go by, but he has all the runs he needs to win this ballgame.  He just needed to avoid the big gaffe, and he did that.

10.  Did anyone catch that the description of "Joe The Plumber" must be a plumber who runs a chain of franchises and makes over $250K per year for McCain's argument to mean anything?  And once again, an entire debate passes without the words "middle class" escaping McCain's lips.  The middle class is the largest segment of the country, the largest source of skilled labor and productivity, and the core of the consumer market- which ultimately provides the foundation of opportunity for the investor class.  To run without putting the middle class front and center is like running for school board without talking about how you'll pay for textbooks.

11.  I don't want to hear any Republican accusing someone else of attacking the fabric of democracy after 2000.  ACORN?  Really?  I guess when your side does it, it's fighting the good fight but when the other side does it, it's an assault on democracy as we know it.

12.  McCain said he repudiates it when anyone in his party crosses the line, yet his own running mate said Barack Obama pals around with terrorists.  I must have missed him repudiating Palin somewhere in the defense of his supporters who followed Palin's lead and literally called for Obama to be killed.   He could have scored major points had he looked right in the camera (which he had a hard time doing anyway) and said:  anyone who would yell such a thing, don't come to my campaign events and I don't want your support- I would rather lose.  Instead, astonishingly, in what may well have been the final act of whoring himself out to the far right that he was once known for fighting, McCain actually stepped up and offered a blanket affirmation of his supporters!

Postscript:  People I talked to generally found McCain to be a bit sharper in this debate.  Yet the insta-polling uniformly showed Obama's biggest win of the season.  And looking inside the numbers, massively more respondents indicated they felt McCain was attacking Obama rather than vice versa; people don't think McCain is speaking to their issues.  We don't have time, they are saying, for the partisan blood sport of the '90s... a lesson McCain would have done well to learn from the defeat of Hillary Clinton. The insta-poll decisiveness looks eerily similar to June 3, the date of the last Democratic primary, when superdelegates came out throughout the day in a collective "calling" of the race.  The insta-poll landslide may be an indication that last night was McCain's Waterloo.  Voters gave him three debates to restore their confidence that the guy they admired before the bright lights of the campaign revealed his true colors might still have some life left.  But what they saw was a campaign plagued by constant mistakes, devoid of strategy, running in a bygone election with no applicability to the challenges of today, and a candidate quite simply not up to the job.  In the end, even through a massive repudiation of the GOP, in the Presidential election voters appear to be choosing not a party, not an ideology, not a set of policies, but actually the man who they think has the capacity to help us work through this mess.  

"This is all McCain has left..."

As I'm sitting here in my field office in Canton- a large, makeshift hub carved out of a strip mall storefront- we have a steady stream of people coming in to buy yard signs.

And what I find striking is that 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 is buying a sign for a second or third time, because someone stole it the first (or even second) time.

They're out of bullets for their guns.  Now the McCain folks are just throwing rocks.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"Detroit: The Quest Is The Thing"

Detroit turned out to be an extremely rewarding experience.  Unlike Camp Obama, this was an eclectic, dynamic, engaged group of people who weren't just talking about making a difference, but who showed up with game faces on.  As a result, the team bonded very quickly.  Watching the debate with them, packed into the GOTV (Get Out The Vote) Room with pizza and beer, was a bizarrely homey, comfortable experience with a group of people I had met only the day before, and a truly great time.  It was quite something to be exchanging knowing glances with people I had only just met...

In fact, in only a week our group began to have a real dynamic.   (Apologies to people from the team reading this who don't get mentioned here... I expect a full "Cast of Characters" missive later.)

Becky, our coordinator, had a seemingly bottomless well of energy that fueled everyone.  Jay brought a real efficiency to the program.   Deborah, Sylvia, Ananya, and Ron brought a real roll-up-your-sleeves sensibility. Miguel, Tali and Evelyn brought a distinct youthful edge to the group.  Jonathan was a real original.  While from Chicago, he featured an accent that was, at best guess, some cross between Cajun and Irish.  Jonathan had lived, in the last few years, everywhere from Mississippi to Seattle to Japan doing all sorts of work, some interesting, some less so, and he was a delightfully stimulating combination of well read and well traveled, intellectual and eccentric, affable and acerbic.  Romanian-born Cosmin brought a sense of calm and focus.   Max brought a bit of a true activist orientation.  And then there was Reggie, a Teamster, a longtime union organizer, someone who is like a platoon sergeant in a war... the guy you want in your foxhole.

On Thursday night we went to Greektown for dinner, and ended up having a fascinating conversation until well after midnight.  The conversation was started by Reggie, who wanted to know what the plan was for this amazing grassroots organization after we (Insh'allah) win this thing... does our carriage turn into a pumpkin on November 5th?  How do the people who have mobilized each other to do this amazing thing stay mobilized to do the work we all know needs to be done?

Now, Reggie and I had been butting heads all week, intellectually.  Reggie comes from the trenches, he's been hardened in battle.  As a result, he sees all politics as a struggle between powerful forces operating in the shadows, and every battle we are forced to fight is part of someone's master plan.  I, on the other hand, come at it from a more academic and less cynical (Reggie would say more naive) direction.  Maybe not full-on idealism, but certainly still with a belief in the possible.  And on some level, Reggie must have believed it, too, because he was here.

Jonathan was in on this conversation, as were Cosmin, Miguel and Becky.  But what I began to see was that the creative friction between Reggie and myself had become one of the driving dynamics within the group.  Reggie was of the belief, in keeping with his world view, that Barack Obama had to have a plan to keep us mobilized to do the work of the country.  I was of the opinion, because of my world view, that we should not wait to be led.  Rather, we should control what we can control, and if among the thousands of people working on this campaign, if ten such discussions were happening around the country, that's how movements get started and that's how mountains are moved.  I believe it's possible to temper expectations but not temper aspirations.

And none of us at the table really knew what this should look like.  As yet I still don't, and I'm waiting for a few quiet moments to think on it.  But it was one of the most amazing, intellectually stimulating nights I have spent in a long time, and I doubt I'll ever forget the people around that table at the Parthenon restaurant into the wee hours that night.

I said something else at the table that night, too:  at some point last week, and I don't remember when it actually was, this stopped being about Barack Obama for me.  It started being about Reggie.  And Becky.  And Cosmin, Jonathan, Becky, Lael, Tali, Diane, Max....  Because at the end of the day, electing Barack Obama is still a means to an end:  to solve the problems that we have all come together to work to solve.  It was about us, and our work, and our country... indeed, our world.

When Obama would frequently say that this campaign was about us, not about him, I always considered it a mix of elusive philosophy and a bit of a platitude.  But around that table that night, I began to understand it in a way that maybe others in the campaign do and maybe they don't... and doubtful those who haven't joined us ever could.  It's not that it's about me.  Rather, it's about us and our work.   

And as a result, I began to think about what is possible (or necessary) beyond getting Barack Obama elected President of the United States.

I don't have that answer.  Maybe I never will.  But I was reminded of something that we all, at some point or another, tend to forget:  that it's about the quest... it's always about the journey.

In his monologue at the end of The American President, Michael Douglas, as President Andrew Shepard, said, "We have serious problems and we need serious people to solve them."

I was privileged to spend that first week with some serious people.

And at the end of the week, we were all walking around headquarters, taking pictures, celebrating the time we spent and realizing that in so little time, we were actually going to miss each other!  I was reminded of a scene from another movie, the slightly less inspiring Iron Eagle.  Jason Gedrick's father, a fighter pilot, had been shot down over a fictional middle eastern country, and Gedrick rallied his spunky group of military brat teenage friends to organize a two-plane rescue mission, flown by himself and Louis Gossett Jr.   The planning session was a joyful, festive time of comradeship... despite the fact that their friend's father was facing execution in a foreign land and their friend, himself, was not terribly likely to make it back alive.

While our stakes are not quite so dire (or at least not quite so immediately dire), we were still having a great time preparing to go out into the field and, well... do some pretty serious business!

Now, out in the field, we are all like replacement soldiers, our OD's still clean, coming in to relieve the bedraggled group of warriors who have been at this all year.  Overnight, I have gone from being the charter member of a club to almost a dilettante.  So I am now losing the daffy grin and once again getting back to business.

I'll let you know how that goes.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"Presidential Ground Game as College Football Recruiting"

So, one of my fellow organizers here at BHO MI HQ gets a call, not unlike the ones we spend much of our days making right now, trying to bring in volunteers to canvass and phone bank.

She informs the caller, who is calling from our campaign in Ohio, that she is already in Michigan as an organizer.

"Are you happy there?" the caller asks her.  "Do you think you might like to come to Ohio instead?"


This is like what Jim Tressel does when he is trying to steal a high profile recruit from Michigan!  Hey, he's only a verbal commitment and we play through the whistle at this level!  Is he going to promise her a car and a hotel suite with a Jacuzzi?  A job in the Obama Administration with a West Wing office 75 feet from the Oval?

Don't they get that an electoral vote in one large swing state counts as much as an electoral vote in another?  

One more reason for me to just hate Ohio.  Go Blue... which is what we hope the state of Michigan will do for Barack.  Good grief.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"The Open Source Campaign"

Open source development is a methodology of software programming by which the code is in the public domain, and updates/improvements are peer reviewed and then accepted.  The idea is that you mobilize and apply the knowledge and ingenuity of everyone.  

Obama for America is very much an open source campaign.  It spreads person to person.  How they conduct the campaign comes very much from the people who have their hands in the dirt, and while there is a centralized strategy that executed with thoughtfulness and discipline, the agile tactics of the campaign come from the ground game.

This really does appear to be the first true grassroots campaign we've seen, incorporating the newest campaign techniques in online virtual phone banking and social networking, and the campaign really is "owned" by the people running it.

When I arrived here in Detroit yesterday, I was quickly brought up to speed on using the DNC's online Votebuilder database to recruit volunteers who had indicated an interest in helping out in a swing state, then I did data entry of voter registration information, as my first day in Detroit was the last day for Michiganders to register to vote.  And I was brought up to speed by one of the old hands here, Jay, who has been here for all of four days.

The most disturbing thing about Jay is his troubling likeness to Sylar from Heroes. So my biggest concern was him pointing at my forehead and cutting off the top of my head to gouge out my brain and steal my superpowers.  Whatever those may be.

Today's challenge is making sure the flow of volunteers continues through Election Day.  McCain announced he was pulling out of Michigan, which is just the latest lie in a campaign that has been built on deception, misinformation, and general bullshit.  He's still on TV, his ground organization is still functioning (such as it is).  But the announcement was nothing more than attempt to slow the Obama onslaught in this critical state.  And thus far it's working.  The "flake rate" - the percentage of committed volunteers who simply don't show- jumped from 15% to 70% after the McCain head fake.  Lord knows that even a fraction of that on November 4 would be disastrous.  So we have all hands on deck to make calls.

Obama state headquarters is housed in the Detroit Teachers Federation building, across the Lodge Freeway from the imposing old Henry Ford Hospital.  I walked a block down to a Subway for lunch and found a thick plexiglass barrier between customer and Sandwich Artist, with a slot to hand over my money and a plexiglass lazy susan to serve up the sandwiches.  The concern over robbery is apparently that acute.  This city is like a scene from some disturbing future/post-apocalyptic movie.

Detroit is a sad remnant of a once great metropolis.  Just on the way in from Birmingham, I saw countless abandoned and burnt out houses sitting in neighborhoods that probably were once no different from the Bungalow Belt in Chicago, a lingering shadow of a formerly comfortable, satisfying life.  If you squint, it looks like a real city.  You have the highways crisscrossing the landscape, with streets traversing them at the intervals you see in Chicago or Minneapolis or Milwaukee or any other city.  You see the big, old buildings that were once grand monuments to progress and now just cast the dark shadows of a bygone era.  The population of Detroit has been in steady decline over the decades and you can't avoid the depressing thought that this is a crumbling shell of the city it is still pretending to be.  

Detroit will be a big job to resurrect... maybe too big.  But it's going to take a lot of smart people with a thoughtful plan.  And we think we have the right people with some ideas. 

Monday, October 6, 2008

"Forget Issues. Just... forget it!"

I have always tried to remind people that a Presidency is driven by national and world events during that term, and a President is ultimately judged by his he leads the nation during those events.  After all, what defines the Bush Presidency more than anything?  It was the hysterical reaction to 9/11 (invading the wrong country and ensnaring us in an incredibly damaging war) and the bungling of the Katrina disaster.  The adminstration choosing partisan loyalty over competence in staffing traditionally apolitical functions like intelligence and justice led to a leaderless government utterly unable to intelligently and capable deal with crises.

John McCain has already given us a window into how he handles difficult decisions.

Consider how he handled his "3 a.m. phone call" on the banking crisis:

His first response to was to blame it on Barack Obama, claiming that Obama was too entrenched in the lobbying culture of Washington, too busy "gaming the system" to do any real work.  This is especially bizarre given McCain's previous attacks accusing Obama of having too little Washington experience to lead the country.  And the response is downright hypocritical considering the integral role people such as Phil Gramm, Rick Davis, and Randy Scheunemann have played in his campaign and in the formation of his policies.

His next response was the bogus "suspension" of his campaign that involved not an hour's slowdown of fundraising, ad buys, appearances field operations or interviews.  He accused Obama of not putting country first and mocked him for merely working the phones, which, interestingly, was all McCain himself did.  And he might have gotten away with this deception had he not cancelled on David Letterman.  Knowing that Katie Couric's interview with Sarah Palin did not go well, McCain wanted to see if he could head that off at the pass by doing his own interview with Couric.  Now, had McCain simply told Letterman that given what was happening, it would not be appropriate for him to appear in a comedy show, it would have all been dismissed.  Instead, he told Letterman that he was heading back to Washington.  This was an absolutely absurd lie, as not only does the entire world know the movements of both candidates, but McCain was in another CBS studio, prompting an enraged Letterman to have Keith Olbermann sit in for McCain.  Olbermann, a fierce partisan, even looked uncomfortable as Letterman ranted about McCain's uber-clumsy maneuver. The entire gambit was nothing more than presenting the false appearance of putting country over party (when in fact he changed nothing) and hoping to take credit for parachuting in and getting the bailout deal done, when in fact he could not corral the far right of the House Republican caucus that ultimately held up the deal.

McCain's coup de grace was voting for the bailout deal out together by the Senate despite the presence of over $100 billion in pork.  McCain has pledged to veto any bill with earmarks attached, but McCain's vote for the necessary (if difficult to swallow) bailout deal laid bare his inability to detach from his certitudes and see the complexities of issues that a President needs to.  The consequences when he cannot, as we have seen over the last 8 years, are dire.  McCain simply flailed around from pillar to post, an exercise in erratic and ineffectual behavior.

Even the very selection of Sarah Palin as a running mate speaks to an erratic problem solving methodology of disengagement with issues followed by wild, unpredictable and often emotional or under-thought responses.  It is said that choosing a running mate is a candidate's first Presidential decision, and let's look at how McCain made it.  

By all accounts his first choices were Tom Ridge and Joe Lieberman, but when the GOP powers that be would not allow him to put a pro-choice running mate a heartbeat away from the Presidency, his knee instead jerked to Palin, an unknown far-right ideologue who on face looked like a play for disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters but in actuality was a somewhat successful attempt to rile up the base.  The problem was, they didn't bother to vet her, and thus didn't know about her pursuit of the mother of all earmarks (the "Bridge to Nowhere")- a sore subject with McCain- nor did they realize that they were getting George W. Bush in a skirt:  fiesty, folksy, not even a tiny bit engaged with issues, and completely unable to think on her feet, as evidenced by her interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric.  And these aren't even the heavyweights.   The result has been that only the most partisan of observers are willing to believe she might be up to the job; 41% according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll- little more than the committed, partisan base who would support any candidate of their party.  Even the moderate punditocracy is scared to death that she could be a heartbeat away from the Presidency.  

"Can we now admit the obvious?  Sarah Palin is utterly unqualified to be Vice President.  She is a feisty, charismatic politician who has done some good things in Alaska.  But she has never spent a day thinking about any important national issue, and this is a hell of a time to start.  There is an ongoing military operation in Iraq that still costs $10 billion a month, a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is not going well and is not easily fixed. Iran, Russia and Venezuela present tough strategic challenges.  

And the American government is stretched to the limit.  Between the Bush tax cuts, homeland security needs, Iraq, Afghanistan and the bailout, the budget is looking bleak. Plus, within a few years the retirement of the Baby Boomers begins with its massive and rising costs (in the trillions) 

Obviously these are very serious challenges and constraints.  In these times, for John McCain to have chosen this person to be his running mate is fudamentally irresponsible.  McCain says that he always puts country first.  In this important case, it is simply not true."

So forget the candidates' positions on issues. They matter, to be sure, but equally critical is how a President can think and act and lead under duress.  McCain has shown us his capabilities in this area, and it's not at all encouraging.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"Beyond the Palin - A Prediction"

Any Republican who watched Tina Fey spoof Sarah Palin tonight on SNL has to be just sick to their stomachs.  Palin has become a punch line, Dan Quayle in a skirt... only more dangerous because of the age and health of John McCain and the perilous times in which we live.

Let's look at what the last two weeks have wrought upon McCain's campaign...  

First you had the banking meltdown and McCain's typically erratic response to the crisis:  first blaming it on Obama, then saying that were he President that "heads would roll" and he would fire the SEC chairman (which the President cannot even do), then engaging in a game of chicken with Obama by threatening to skip Friday's debate to do the work of the country- a move that was seen by all but the most partisan of observers as a nakedly political maneuver.  This mistake was compounded by his canceling on David Letterman and then lying to him about why (claiming to be headed back to Washington, when all the while he was doing an interview with Katie Couric and the next day participating in the Clinton Global Initiative.)  

Palin, in the meantime, remains virtually sequestered, and the media is getting angrier and angrier at not being able to subject her to the requisite scrutiny to which they have subjected McCain, Obama and Biden.  This may be the lesser problem for McCain, as Palin's performance with Katie Couric was no less embarrassing than her performance with Charlie Gibson.  

This was all capped off by a foreign policy debate between McCain and Obama in which a wide range of polling from many media outlets indicated that voters felt Obama emerged victorious.  (If even Fox News is admitting it...)  This is a body blow to the McCain campaign as, rightly or wrongly, he had previously been viewed as being stronger on foreign policy.  But that all went out the window when Obama proved he could play on McCain's home turf and look more Presidential than the clench-jawed, smirking McCain who couldn't contain his contempt for the young Senator for whom has has harbored a deep personal dislike since the day he arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed in Washington.

Obama is polling anywhere from 2 to 10 points ahead in the national polls, consistently in double digits on the issue of the economy, and making gains in key battleground states.  Even  more foreboding is how the conservative punditocracy continues to turn not only on Palin (Kathleen Parker even called for her to withdraw), but in the case of conservative heavyweight George Will, even on McCain himself.

All in all, two weeks that were nothing short of disastrous for the McCampaign, and about the only answer they seem to have is to blame any media member or outlet who is not on board as part of some vast left wing conspiracy... despite the fact that McCain was once a darling of this same media.

So what is McCain's normal response to being backed into a corner?

He is a craps player... literally and figuratively.  So he will try a wild and unpredictable move to change the story and move the game.  That's what he did with this debate stunt this week.  It's also what he did with the Palin selection- a craps equivalent of putting all your chips on 4.  Sure, it will pay off 9-to-5 if you hit, but it's also the least likely number to come up.  McCain went "all in" on a high-risk, high-reward play, and it's now very close to "7-out" and the dealer is reaching for his chips.  Palin may have briefly energized the radical conservative base and religious right, but the hull of his ship on the moderate (responsible? rational?) side was punctured by an iceberg and Leonardo and Kate are trying to find a way off.

There is one play that might accomplish what McCain must in order to stay in the game, and it's a play he literally has to make within the next 96 hours:

Fire Palin.

Would dumping Palin from the ticket (presumably to replace her with Mitt Romney) open McCain up to the judgment questions that he has managed to sidestep thus far?  Perhaps, but with the flood that is the Palin backlash overflowing the riverbanks and headed for town, it might be safe to say that horse has pretty well left the barn.   The McCain campaign is currently bleeding out and they need to apply a tourniquet.  McCain can spin this as "Country First"  - I made a mistake, but I am accountable for my mistakes and I fix them no matter how it makes me look.  He may not win a lot of people back with that line, but he might prevent further hemorrhaging of the sort that is pointing towards an Obama landslide.

McCain can't allow Palin to withdraw for a contrived personal reason, either, as Parker suggests.  He can't appear to have continued to back her when even she knew she was out of her league.  He must be the decider.

Such a maneuver also fulfills two other strategic objectives:

It puts an end to the Palin-Biden debate, which- if Palin's performance with Gibson and Couric is any indication- may turn out to be the final nail in the McCoffin.  Biden is an acknowledged policy wonk and he's outstanding in a short answer debate format.  While in the Presidential race himself, he consistently outperformed both Obama and Clinton.  Palin facing Biden on this stage is like a high school tennis player facing off with Roger Federer.  She's going to be lucky to win a point, let alone a game, a set, or the match.  If McCain can't even trust Palin to campaign on her own without him or face the media on a daily basis (let alone the Sunday shows), they have to know right now they can't let her take the stage with Joe Biden.  But if you pluck Mitt Romney off the bench and put him in the game, he can battle with Biden on issues from a much broader and deeper pool of knowledge than the inflatable backyard variety in which Palin is currently splashing around.

The other thing this would do is throw the Democrats a curveball.  Biden has been preparing for this debate with Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm playing Palin on the scout team.  Subbing in Romney would be an equalizer on the preparation front.

Dumping Palin is the only move that makes sense, fits with McCain's M.O. , and provides him anything to even attempt to spin.  Even if Palin were to somehow find some semblance of a game right now, it may not even matter because so much of the country has already concluded she's the proverbial knife in a gunfight.

Unless McCain has actually accepted that he's cooked, this is the only play that makes sense.

I'm putting my chips on it.

Friday, September 26, 2008

"The Limitations of Ideology"

OK, while I'm waiting on my billet for the campaign, I think I'll give you some thoughts on the financial crisis we're in.

There are limits to liberal or conservative ideology if applied in a distilled, orthodox manner.

I have heard Republicans often make the argument for "personal responsibility" as a substitute for too much government interference in our lives, as if being for regulation or in favor of certain government programs somehow represents being "irresponsible".  In recent days I have heard some continue to stand by de-regulation as a policy and oppose the bailout of the banking industry.  Unfortunately, there are limits to "personal responsibility" when applied as a public policy.

Let's use this example:  why not de-regulate our roads?

After all, we all know what responsible driving is.  Why not simply rely on people to drive defensively and rationally?

The reason is:  the fallibility of human nature.  

Many people will tend to drive aggressively in order to get where they are going more quickly, satisfying a short term need or urge at the expense of responsibility.  And if the only consequence of this was that they might plow into a mailbox or run their car into a ditch, you take a Darwinistic approach and say:  that's what you get.

The problem here is that an irresponsible driver is just as likely to hit you as he is a mailbox!

The same holds true with mortgages.  Failure of personal responsibility on a broad scale has consequences for everyone.  Consumers are fallible:  they are subject to greed, myopia, lack of understanding, or simply being marketed to or taken advantage of.  And businesses will too often take the quick buck without seeing around the bend.

And if the only consequence of this fallibility is that some Wall Street execs go belly up and people who made bad decisions lose their homes, then you could say hey, we feel bad for you, but we can't bail you out.

However, when the mortgage crisis spread to the banking industry at large, it became a problem for anyone with money in the stock market or anyone who needs and deserves credit.  So we have to bail out the industry to prevent a run on the banks and a massive deflation of the stock market as confidence in the market fails... a depression.

Wouldn't it be so much easier if we simply had a common sense "rules of the road" that ensures that lending and borrowing is done responsibly?

Whether you believe government is a necessary evil or a place where a community comes together to work for progress, surely everyone can agree that you can regulate an industry in a common sense manner without compromising the market economy.

One would hope we could agree, anyway.

But this is where small government orthodoxy, in football terminology, out-kicks its coverage. Besides the fact that de-regulation tends to favor those with capital over those who simply work for a paycheck, much like the failure of trickle-down economics, it fails to recognize that it's better even for those with capital if the middle class grows and we have a thriving source of skilled, educated labor and a huge consumer market.  It promotes entrepreneurship and growth in every sector and at every level of the economy.   It provides ample tax revenue to maintain our infrastructure (which we are not doing well enough now- just ask anyone in Minneapolis).  The whole country is more competitive.

Looking out for your neighbor is not simply a bleeding-heart liberal ideal.  It's a matter of self-interest.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Melissa will not stop calling the Internet "the internets".  I think she has been mocking George W. Bush for so long that she has forgotten the actual word.

On Day Two of Camp Obama, it became clear to me that this was much more "orientation" than "boot camp".    It was hard not to notice that we lost close to 50 of the 150 from the day before.  I guess too many people couldn't bear to give up another beautiful weekend day, especially with the Bears playing.  And some probably sneaked a peek at the life of a Deputy Field Organizer in our packets (more on this below) and balked.

Melissa was unfazed, and her degree of unfazed-ness when it comes to the subject of Indiana and Wisconsin continues to surprise me.  This campaign is awash in volunteers (although there is really no theoretical limit to the number that would be effective, provided they are properly indoctrinated).  And the campaign wants a veritable D-Day invasion of Ohio and Michigan.

Much of the morning was devoted to a virtual "Management for Dummies" workshop, much of which I tuned out.  At one point we were shown a list of different styles of leader:   telling, persuading, consulting, joining, and delegating.  When asked for a show of hands, the vast majority of the room claimed to be a "consulting" leader, probably because it's the type of leadership that makes the most logical sense to someone who has not often been called upon to lead.

If it seems like I talk contemptuously about my fellow Campers, I really don't intend to.  But if there was one aspect of the program that surprised me, it was the relative lack of intellectual engagement of the Campers at large.  I expected to be in the mainstream of engagement with issues and professional experience.  What I actually found was a group of low to middle information voters who were either inspired by Barack Obama (but really couldn't articulate any concrete reason why) and/or had little else to do.  But don't get me wrong, I do have a solid degree of respect and admiration for anyone who will roll up their sleeves and actually do something with their passion rather than sit around and talk about it.  On that level, no matter from which direction we come at this, we are all the same, and on that level I felt some kinship with all of them.  I also rather admired the diversity of the group.  It was largely white, maybe 20% black, with a sprinkling of Asian and Hispanic.  I couldn't help but thinking we had more black people in the room than they had at the GOP convention in St. Paul.

After lunch, we got a fairly detailed indoctrination into the life of a Deputy Field Organizer and the 12-hour days (or more) of calling everyone under the sun to recruit volunteers, all of it spent mostly in hastily established field offices buried under various degrees of filth. Not all that different from what I expected to hear, to be honest.  I certainly have an image of the operatives on the ground as a bedraggled band of generally young, gung-ho types with sleeves rolled up and hands deep in the dirt.  And I'm ready to be one of them for a while.  Here is a sample schedule...

Early Morning:  morning rush hour voter registration

9:00  Open field office, review numbers.

9:30  Team meeting.

10:00  Finish data entry, prepare for daytime volunteers - set up voter registration/walk packets, call sheets, enter volunteers into online system, update all volunteers, confirm scheduling of all volunteers online, track hard counts.

11:00  Voter registration/voter contact, one-on-ones

1:00  Lunch

1:30  Touch base with volunteers, see how voter contact or house meetings went, status review of voter registration efforts, plan upcoming meetings and events.  Call & print turf/phone lists.

2:00  One-on-one volunteer reminder calls, call to schedule volunteer shifts or schedule house meetings.

4:00  One-on-Ones

4:30  Dinner/snack and final preparations

5:00  Phone banking, launch evening canvass

9:15  Tally results

9:30  Submit nightly reports, meetings with field teams.

10:30-11:30   Close up shop.

After everyone got a look at this, the remainder of  Camp Obama was devoted to an extended Q&A with Melissa as we all filled out our deployment forms.  I should find out where I am being sent later this week.

Until then, check out my other blogs...

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Climbing inside an historic Presidential campaign begins with Camp Obama, where 150 of us are being trained to be Deputy Field Organizers, going out into districts in battleground states to recruit and manage volunteers, canvassing and phone-banking and getting out the vote... being the ground game that has carried Barack Obama to the cusp of the Presidency.

Camp Obama is taking place at the IBEW hall west of downtown Chicago.  Walking into this room, I am reminded only of a game-faced Michael Keaton rallying angry auto workers in western Pennsylvania in Gung Ho.  I am reminded of this largely because this movie is pretty much all I know of union halls, and this room is sufficiently dull, with a large rostrum in front.

Our emcee for the day is Melissa, a bespectacled abstractly girl-next-door-cute former elementary school music teacher, right down to the chipper bearing and talking with her hands.  One of the first things that strikes me about Melissa's message is that she is fairly certain we're going to win this thing.  I expected to hear a rallying cry of just how tight the race is and how this is a climactic battle between good and evil, and only those of us in the room stand between America and Armageddon.  Yet Melissa makes a point of announcing that we aren't planning for November 4th, but rather, planning for January 20th, to do the work that the country needs to do.  I find this equal parts inspiring and disturbing.  It's inspiring in the sense that the endgame is not the dismissal of John McCain... it really is change.  Yes, we can, indeed.  But I am viscerally disturbed because this is like a football team looking ahead a week to the big rivalry game, yet their mind is not fully on the winnable game in front of them.  You never want to do that!  How about we talk about January on November 5th, god willing...

Melissa's story is rather cute, as well.  When she was teaching, she asked her students to list their heroes.  One said firefighters.  One said her dad.  And another said the President of the United States.  Melissa could not bring herself to write "George W. Bush" on a list of heroes and, like a true politician emerging, pivoted the conversation to Abraham Lincoln and talked about POTUS in the abstract.  So disturbed that young people would only know W when it came to Presidents, she volunteered to work on Obama's campaign the next summer, and quickly made herself indispensable.

The stories of those at my table this morning were varied.  Nick and Don saw polling after the GOP convention, in the midst of the Palin bubble, that showed the candidates dead even and were scared and angry that America might really consider voting for the same policies that have left us in such a world of hurt.  Chad, a quiet and thoughtful 26 year-old bicycle messenger from Pennsylvania who didn't finish college at Penn State, voted for Nader in 2004 and has found himself now truly fired up about politics for the first time.  Harriette, a pastor, flunked out of Northwestern University and lived in a homeless shelter for nine months and now likes being involved in politics at the grassroots level.  Emma is the daughter of civil rights activists, grew up under segregation, and on many occasions spoke with Martin Luther King.  

Emma made perhaps the most profound statement of the day:

Rosa Parks opportunities don't manifest often.

Not only that, but you probably don't even know it's a Rosa Parks moment when you're in it.  What bound all of us together, I found, was a personal desire to not just get Obama elected for what it would mean for the country, but for ourselves to make a mark... what that would mean for us, individually. I have spent a great deal of time reading and watching MSNBC and debating with my friends and evangelizing to pretty much anyone who will listen, but as Melissa said: watching CNN will not get Barack Obama elected.

For myself, I reached a point where it was crystal clear to me that if John McCain were to win, I would have nothing to complain about if I didn't stand up and get in the game.  And should Obama win, likewise I could claim little sense of ownership in this historic development.

My own path to political activism began on 9/11.  I became a news junkie after that, my eyes suddenly open to world events and politics.  It had never mattered to me before, but this shocked my brain into sharp focus.  In the coming months and years, I became a devotee of Meet The Press and a great admirer of Tim Russert and the indispensable role I saw him playing in the American political discourse.  Always a voracious reader, I found myself reading less fiction and sports and more history, politics, economics and current events.  I was suddenly determined to be an informed citizen.  When I studied economics in graduate school, my opinions on issues began to crystallize.  I began to believe that America needed both the liberal and conservative viewpoints represented, and that a desire for the smallest government possible, the lowest taxes possible and fiscal responsibility were not incompatible with the notion that government, rather than a necessary evil, could be a place where the nation could come together as a community to serve the common  good and that it's not acceptable to leave anyone behind.

But what cemented my current party affiliation was what I began to understand about the Republican Party as an organization.  Dating back to Bob Haldeman and Chuck Colson in the Nixon White House, to Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr's Clinton witch hunt, to the Swift Boat Veterans for (cough) Truth, and finally to the utter inability of John McCain and Sarah Palin to tell the truth about anything and the inability of the Republican PR firm, Fox News, to make an intellectually honest argument rather than spew propaganda, I began to recognize a hardwired propensity for hypocrisy, outright dishonesty and dirty politics that went far beyond the typical level of spin one would expect from politics as usual.  The GOP had ceased to represent the honorable conservatism of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, hijacked by the religious right and lobbyists, ceasing to stand for anything but the quest for power at any price... P.J. O'Rourke's Parliament of Whores.  And the politicization of 9/11 and their own bungling of the Katrina disaster continues to be just galling.

The country needs these people to take a seat on the bench for a term or two while they figure out who they are trying to be, and I needed to get involved in making sure it happens.  I'm inspired by Obama as much as the next guy, and I do believe he has the ability to be one of our great Presidents- something I have never believed in any of the previous elections in which I have voted.  But as we explored our stories, I did come to realize that my motivation was much stronger on the side of defeating McCain, who I once admired and have come to loathe as much as I do his party at large.

So, we spent the entire session up until lunch time exploring our respective stories of self, on the premise that we all needed to truly understand what we were doing here in order to bring the message to others... a reasonable enough approach.  But that message took a strange form after lunch. 

Melissa explained the campaign's philosophy of respect:  respecting each other, those to whom we evangelize, even our opponents.  Mudslinging would not be tolerated.  So in the spirit of respecting even our opponent, the next hour of policy review was essentially an exercise in painting John McCain as the antichrist while avoiding saying the the name John McCain whenever possible.  The resonant dichotomy between McCain and the messianic Obama was working the crowd into a mild lather.  This was programming (with a healthy does of group self-congratulation), turning 150 volunteer organizers with varying command of the complexities of public policy into political Marines in 90 minutes. Semper Politicus.

What we began to see was a laundry list of the most extreme possible takes on everyone's positions.   And after each one, the applause in the room intensified.  This was becoming more pep rally than training session.  I didn't even know if we were cheering the mildly bastardized policies themselves or the participants' ham-handed attempts to elucidate them.

They only care about the rich.  (applause)

Barack Obama wants everyone to have health care and they don't.  (applause)

John McCain wants America to be in Iraq for 100 years.  (The crowd goes wild.)

Barack Obama will eliminate income taxes for seniors making under $50,000.

OK, this one is just what it is, but Chad wryly adds, "while John McCain will not rest until we have more seniors living in poverty!"

My favorite was one participant who referred to our "service economy" thusly:

90% of people serve the 10% with wealth.

Somewhere John Edwards smiled.

Before we got into the 45 minutes of actual training for the day, we were paid a surprise visit by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.  Approximately the same age as Sarah Palin, Madigan is a true politician, and she delivered a motivational address at a blood-quickening pace in a style polished to such a sheen that you can see your reflection in it.

We are energized to get Barack Obama elected as the next President of the United States! 


Madigan then launched into what was essentially a stump speech for Obama.  She served in the State Senate with him, and touted his legislative accomplishments such as an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), ethics reform, and a crackdown on racial profiling which presumably forced the Highland Park police to stop pulling people over for Driving While Black... and he did this all within the constraints of a Republican-controlled state senate.  She called Obama a new Kennedy (hardly a novel comparison but somehow more impactful now) and "our friend", saying "you KNOW Barack Obama!"   I'm not sure what to make of this as I, like the vast majority of the thousands of people working around the country for him, have in fact never met the man.

You are following in Barack Obama's footsteps.  You are community organizers!



(Community organizer!!!!)

We're going to win Illinois...


... and Indiana...


... and Iowa...

(louder applause)

... and Michigan and Wisconsin!!!

(applause rising to a crescendo)

You are making history in the race of a lifetime!!!

(riotous applause)
All that was missing was Howard Dean screaming like a banshee.

So now that the room got a collective shot of adrenalin, it's time to get down to brass tacks.

It's easy to see how Obama's ground game has been so effective, and how the bean counters in his camp have tended to be a step ahead of even the best of political analysts on the national scene.

Volunteers, be they phone bankers or canvassers, fill out tally sheets of how many contacts they made on their lists, and each contact is rated 1-5 on the "Obameter".  1 is someone who is solidly in Obama's camp.  2 is someone leaning in Obama's direction.  3 is undecided.  4 is leaning towards McCain.  And 5 is a McCainiac.

As this data gets pushed back up through the field organization, the campaign gets a very detailed precinct-by-precinct readout on how well they are doing.  National pollsters do not get nearly this granular.

And this is where an enthusiasm gap can really make a difference.  It is easy to get sucked into the national media punditocracy and a handful of bluntly-measured polls and think you're actually getting the picture.  But an enthusiastic corps of volunteers, strategically and comprehensively organized, using classical approaches as well as sophisticated online social networking techniques to reach younger voters, can push those 3's to 2's, those 2's to 1's, and those 1's to being part of the corps of volunteers.  Hillary Clinton had name recognition coming in, but she didn't (or couldn't) build this kind of ground organization and discovered the internet in February.  John McCain doesn't have the means to build such a ground organization, and despite inventing the Blackberry, can't even use a computer.    So the result is the Obama campaign not only getting hands-on in influencing people, but they also have a more comprehensive view of how well they're doing and thus can get much more strategic on the allocation of resources.

Of course, as this was all explained, I wondered aloud if perhaps the most strategic approach with the 4's might not be to encourage them to vote for Bob Barr.  Just as anti-establishment votes that went to Ralph Nader in 2004 were virtual votes for George Bush because they were votes that would have otherwise gone to John Kerry, a vote for Bob Barr in 2008 is a conservative vote siphoned right out of McCain's tank.  It seems to me like it would be easier to convince a McCain lean to vote for Barr than to come over to the, ahem, dark side.

I got nowhere with this.  I'll try again tomorrow.

We closed out the day with the actual mechanics of organizing a canvass or running a phone bank... mostly common sense, but at least getting everyone on the same page.

Before we broke, we got a visit from US Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL 7th), who gruffly and inarticulately commended us all for getting involved, bragged about how great the politics are in his district (given the history of Chicago politics, I'm not sure if this is a good thing), and generally displayed slightly less polish the the remnants of a 1977 Ford Pinto in a red state back yard.

I don't know what I think of any of this yet, but I do like not having to take Chuck Todd's word for it.

See you tomorrow,