2012 Election, American Presidents, Minnick, Obama, Pete Seeger, Romney

Politics 101

Lessons from the Streets

For a while during his second comeback of the GOP primary season Newt Gingrich was spending more time talking about Saul Alinsky than his opponents.

“The centerpiece of this campaign,” Gingrich said at one point, “is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.” Such disconnected talk from the stump, like Rick Santorum’s Satan references or Mitt Romney singing, must leave a lot of voters scratching their heads and saying, “what’s he talking (or singing) about?” It’s a good question and let me offer part of the answer. Hint: it has nothing to do with exceptionalism or radicalism, but rather good, basic, traditional Politics 101.

As Romney stumbles out of Michigan with the win he had to have and reclaims for the fifth or sixth time the front runner label, the Republican field rolls on to Super Tuesday and what will undoubtedly be more twists and turns in this fascinating election. I’m left with two thoughts on the last day of February: there is a lot of time left between now and election day in November and, when it comes to campaigns, there is never enough time.

That second reality may prove to be the biggest challenge that Romney – and, yes, I still think he will be the Republican nominee – will face in a knockdown drag out race against Barack Obama. And that’s were the radical Mr. Alinsky comes to play. [Here’s a good primer on Alinsky.]

In a fascinating piece in The National Journal reporter Major Garrett provides a glimpse inside what Obama’s campaign has been doing while Romney has been talking about his wife’s Cadillacs and Santorum was calling the president a snob for suggesting that everyone should have a chance to go to college.

Garrett notes that Obama’s lead in battleground Michigan is now 18 points over Romney with all the talk of auto bailouts and contraception working to the president’s advantage. But Garrett’s real political insight in contained in this description of what the Obama campaign is doing on the ground in states that will be pivotal in the fall.

“While Republicans have been competing in Arizona and Michigan, the Obama campaign has been stepping up its voter-identification and mobilization efforts,” Garrett writes. “The reelection campaign already has eight offices in Michigan—in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Warren, Pontiac, Ann Arbor, Flint, Lansing, and Kalamazoo. In Arizona, three offices are open in Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Tucson. Another will open soon in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale and will focus on Hispanic outreach.

“The campaign is also aggressively organizing voter-registration drives and social events to contact new voters. From now until March 31, the reelection has 73 such events scheduled in Detroit, 22 in Grand Rapids, and 59 in Ann Arbor. The same kind of grassroots activity is planned in Arizona. From now until April 22, the campaign will conduct 69 organizing events in and around Phoenix. The Tucson area will have 40 events between now and March 29, and Flagstaff will host 16 between now and March 20.”

You can take it to the bank – or the polling place – that such organizational work is being done, often under the radar, in person, on Facebook and Twitter, in every state where the president has a prayer of winning in November. That is what you call “community organizing,” emblematic of the tactics that Alinsky wrote the book on during his neighborhood organizing days in Chicago.

As historian Thomas J. Sugrue wrote recently in Salon, “Gingrich versus Alinsky is not a battle over ideas; it’s about power, who should have it and who should not. That’s why 40 years after his death, the Chicago radical remains on the right’s enemies list.”

Come the fall, and remember it is a long time until the election, here’s betting the presidential contest will be very tight with Mitt Romney, despite all is troubles, a very serious threat to Obama’s re-election. Nonetheless, among Romney’s major worries must be the cold reality of Politics 101. While he battles for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and struggles to secure the GOP base, the president’s campaign is “organizing, organizing, organizing.”

As Alinsky’s organizing Rule 8 says: “Keep the pressure on…the major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this that will cause the opposition to react to your advantage.”

Barack Obama isn’t the dangerous radical Newt Gingrich paints him to be, but he – and his campaign – are smart enough to have gone to school on that which works. They learned from George W. Bush’s masterfully organized campaign in 2004 and using the new technology now available they adapted those lessons to 2008. The pressure is on in 2012 and they’re doing it again.