Why progressives should keep organizing on MyBarackObama.com

Some Obama supporters say we should disband our FISA group now that the vote is past. I disagree. If progressives are silent, the campaign will take us for granted.

Published July 11, 2008 5:30PM (EDT)

A little over two weeks ago, Barack Obama announced that he would vote in favor of FISA legislation even if it bestowed retroactive immunity upon the lawless, but deep-pocketed, telecom companies. This announcement reversed his earlier stance and came as a great disappointment to a swath of Fourth Amendment defenders who ran clear across the political spectrum. Many of them, myself included, were loyal Barack Obama supporters.

Within days of Obama's announcement, I found myself administrating the largest "group" on Barack Obama's social networking site, My.BarackObama.com (MyBo), "Senator Obama -- Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity -- Get FISA Right." Over 20,000 people joined the group in an effort to convey their disappointment in their candidate's reversal. (Obama had promised to filibuster any bill that contained telecom immunity.) Thousands of e-mails were sent, a core group of full-time (and then some) volunteer administrators worked around the clock, and thousands of phone calls were made to scores of Senate offices.

Obama eventually responded to the group with a statement that simply rephrased some things he had already said. And then he voted for the bill.

Since then, there have been calls for the group to disband. I suspect those with the loudest voices were never particularly fond of the group, but there are others who sincerely doubt the utility of the group now that the FISA vote has passed, and want to know why we haven't already cached ourselves.

I cannot speak for the entire group; we're still hashing out the details of our post-vote structure.

Speaking for myself, however, I see several reasons for the group to continue. The main one is to try to reverse the near-decade-long Republican assault on American values. Every tool available should be used to further that goal; maintaining a line of open and frank communication with our party's standard-bearer is one of the most important tools in the progressive toolbox.

Notwithstanding the candidate's protestations, it has been clear in recent weeks that Obama has been distancing himself from the progressives who carried him to victory in the Democratic primary. That's his choice, but all choices have consequences. A likely consequence to this tactic may be that many of the newly energized voters who were so keen on volunteering and voting for him in the primary will be turned off by his rightward shift. I think it is important to give those voters a place on MyBo.com to continue doing what we can to pressure Obama to "dance with those who brung him."

The progressives who constitute the Democratic Party's activist base learned a lesson from the 2000 election; Ralph Nader will almost certainly not be a factor in the 2008 presidential election because left-leaning voters are not willing to throw their votes away. That said, there is -- or should have been -- another side to the Nader coin. If the base learned that every vote is sacred, what was the take-away for elected Democrats? Nader used to say there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the parties. Judging from Democratic behavior since recovering Congress in 2006, Nader may even get some change back for his dime in 2008.

From the moment George W. Bush took office and ripped this country to the right, Democrats in Congress ran after him like abandoned puppies afraid of being left alone in a dark house. They gave him extreme tax cuts for the wealthy, backed his rush to war, enacted draconian bankruptcy reform legislation and stood by meekly (or actively helped) as he trampled civil liberties and the Bill of Rights.

The Democratic establishment should have learned that we need a Democratic Party that will draw clear distinctions between itself and the Republicans, but it has not. Political cynicism on the left is growing, and with good reason. We won both houses of Congress back in 2006, but we've seen almost nothing change. Most recently, a bipartisan coalition -- which included Barack Obama -- voted to subvert justice by granting the telecom special interests retroactive immunity for lawlessly spying on Americans. (It's worth noting that the capitulating House Democrats received over twice the telecom campaign contributions that their constitutional stalwart colleagues did.)

By using the tools provided by MyBo.com in this new way -- call it friendly feedback -- we're providing the Obama campaign with an opportunity to engage its base, and letting progressive Obama supporters who are nonetheless critical of his shift to the center know that we aren't alone in the wilderness. The effort constitutes an opportunity for the campaign to increase hope and enthusiasm. Democrats simply cannot afford to give away any third-party votes in 2008, and I think maintaining an activist, progressive, pro-civil liberties presence on MyBo.com is a way to keep Obama's progressive base tied to his candidacy, rather than drifting into third-party irrelevance.

I would even suggest our efforts are good for Barack Obama personally. He is now surrounded by Washington insiders. By providing Obama with a touchstone from outside the Beltway, I hope he will allow us to guide him toward the instincts he developed as a Chicago community organizer rather than those of a Beltway all-star.

As I write, there are early reports that Obama's June fundraising totals were disappointing. (There is no official confirmation yet.) The Obama campaign is denying a Wall Street Journal report about this, but the Washington Post also reports that his Internet fundraising is off. Much has been made of the small-donor base Obama cultivated so assiduously. Could it be that a drought of progressive enthusiasm based on his FISA flip stunted his crop last month?

We'll find out eventually. Meanwhile, everything our MyBo.com group has done so far comports perfectly with Obama's vision for involving the American people in government decision making. He's called on us to be the change we want to see; we're going to do that to the best of our abilities.

By Mike Stark

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Fisa