Public Nuisance

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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Thursday, October 09, 2003
Is Clark in Crisis?

There has been some disorder and musical chairs recently in the Clark campaign, most visibly the resignation of Donnie Fowler and most recently an open attack on the campaign by an anonymous insider from the original draft campaign. Certain bloggers, mostly the pro-Dean faction, have been jumping on this as a sign that the Clark campaign is collapsing. At Tapped, Garance Frankie-Ruta, who had been setting up shop as the house Clark basher, stepped back to do an interesting discussion of the problem.

How seriious is it? "The bell [is] tolling for the Clark campaign" according to the attack linked above. Another piece I saw somewhere in the blogosphere says Clark has two weeks to salvage the situation. Such announcements strike me as needlessly, even absurdly, apocalyptic.

Clark continues to lead in the latest poll released today. Money is coming in. There are 3 months until the first primary. And the grass roots continue to thrive. This is not a campaign on the verge of catastrophe. Most of these difficulties look like just the expected false steps and personal incompatabilities that occur when a new organization is being formed. They happen in most campaigns, but we are under greater pressure to fix them quickly since we came into the race relatively late.

The critiques suggest that the grass roots are angry at the campaign's direction. As I have mentioned before, I am involved as a grass roots activist for the campaign in my area. We aren't being micro-managed, or even really managed at all, out of Little Rock. The instructions we have gotten have been simply to continue our current activities. Hardly anything has been changed - I believe that local groups were told to stop having campaign materials printed at non-union shops, but that's almost the only order sent down I know of, and I don't think it affected our local group. If anything, the problem for local activists is that we aren't getting enough from Arkansas; particularly we would like to have Arkansas sending us campaign flyers, signs, and so forth, so we could focus only on getting them out, without having to expend energy creating and printing them. This hasn't happened yet; supposedly it is on the way very soon.

The anger that I read on the web is simmering in the Clark grass roots is completely invisible to me. The people in my local group are excited and optimistic. We believe in the candidate and are waiting to see with the campaign.

What seems to be ignored in all the commentary on the Clark campaign is that we are doing something that is really unprecedented. Clark had about 20,000 volunteers in place nationally on the day he declared; many more have come in since. This was done over the web, mostly through Meetup and a lot of Yahoo groups. We also had tables in street fairs and other locations, which added more names to our lists. There was very minimal structure - major areas had local coordinators who were in touch with each other through email and phones, and there were the people who ran the draft web sites. Other people had organized themselves into various groups for particular projects. We had the pledges to raise money, but the money actually donated to the draft couldn't go to the campaign for legal reasons. We had volunteers in every state and almost every major city, but nobody really knew how to put this into a serious campaign. No campaign has had anything like this already in place from day one; previous campaigns have worked for months to develop similar networks. Most never succeeded; Clark's Meetup list now is larger than those of the other eight candidates (excluding Dean) combined.

Since nobody has ever done it before, nobody really knows how to fold that kind of grass roots internet movement into a developing campaign. Dean has run a brilliant grass roots operation, but his support grew gradually in an existing campaign, and he's had over a year to put his operation together. And even in the Dean camp, the bugs aren't entirely worked out.

Once we really have it right, the Clark campaign can potentially offer the best elements of an insider and outsider campaign - backing from the party establishment and an excited, effective volunteer base. I think we'll get there; but we clearly aren't there now. Mistakes have doubtless been made, and more probably will be. Working this out is a tricky problem. But figuring out what to do with 40,000 enthusiastic volunteers spread across the country is a 'problem' that the Kerry and Gephardt campaigns wish they had. (The volunteer list is large and growing; Clark is now consistently getting more Meetup signups than Dean.)

And while I'm on the topic of the party establishment, I find it quite astonishing that certain Democratic bloggers - Kos being the worst and most consistent offender - have completely swallowed the RNC line that the Clintons and Al Gore are the quintessence of evil. To Kos, Clinton and Gore are so suffused with corruption that it inevitably rubs off on anybody who associates with anybody who associates with them. No self-respecting volunteer will stay in a campaign that allows these awful people to play key roles. A little reminder: the Clinton/Gore insiders won three consecutive presidential elections and gave this country eight years of the best government it has had for half a century. I'm not planning to leave the campaign because they're joining it, and I can't see why any Democrat would.

Lastly, I want to point out that these 'grass roots' complaints against the campaign aren't really coming from the local volunteers, the true grass roots, at all. They seem to be coming from the 'outside insiders', the folks who ran the draft web sites - look at all the hints and nudge nudge insider gossip in the screed I linked to at the beginning of this post. Some of them have been given positions in the campaign that are not equal to what they consider they deserve. I think those people have made terrific contributions and can continue to help the campaign succeed, and I hope that good roles are found for them. But I didn't join up to get a job with the campaign or to guarantee that John Hlinko gets a nice office in Little Rock. I joined to help replace a terrible President with a man who could become a great one, and that's still what I care about.