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No We Can't

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What backfired, it turns out, was ceding populist outrage on health care to the far right. Because OFA failed to mobilize the American people to confront the insurance companies, it allowed industry-funded Republicans, like former House majority leader Dick Armey, to foment a revolt by the Tea Partiers, whose anger dominated the news. Stewart, the director of OFA, says the failure to anticipate last summer's town-hall ragefest was his. "Organizing for America did not properly plan for that first week of August," he says. "That was an error on my part." OFA scrambled to rally its troops, generating more than 300,000 calls to Congress on a single day. But the belated effort typified the group's first year. "It's always reactive and half-hearted," says Moulitsas. "The movement was built on the concept of big change — but they haven't gone after the things you need to do to enact change." Indeed, OFA's own numbers reveal a sharp drop-off in activist participation: All told, only 2.5 million of its 13 million followers took part in its health care campaign last year — and that's counting people who did nothing but sign the group's "statement of support."

"It didn't work — with an exclamation point at the end!" says Rollins, the former Reagan strategist. "They didn't keep the organization alive. They thought it was out there to use whenever they wanted to use it. But with constituents who feel like they've been part of a revolution — as ours did in '80 and '81 — you've got to feed them. You've got to make sure that they feel important." Instead, says Rollins, OFA "e-mailed them to death, but without any real steps to make them feel a part of the process, like they felt a part of the campaign."

In the wake of Coakley's loss, OFA has been silent on the health care front. "There hasn't been a single directive from OFA since Election Day in Massachusetts," observes Evry, the former campaign coordinator. "No 'Let's get those e-mails out there.' No 'Let's phone-bank.' No 'Let's target this politician.' Nothing." The failure to secure a bill through Emanuel's fuck-the-activists dealmaking has created a double whammy heading into this fall's midterm elections: no legislative victory on health care, coupled with widespread disillusionment among the party's base.

Acknowledging that it was blindsided in Massachusetts, the president has summoned Plouffe back to the White House to oversee campaign efforts. The move is an implicit admission that Plouffe's intermittent engagement was part of the problem. "They thought this was the Harry Potter school of organizing," says one insider. "Just wave your wand. But this shit isn't easy."

The good news is, OFA's last-minute blitz in Massachusetts underscored what it's still capable of. In just 10 days, the group generated more than twice as many calls on Coakley's behalf as they did in support of health care last year — an effort credited with helping to cut Republican Scott Brown's final margin of victory in half. Yet asked if the lesson from Massachusetts is that OFA should recommit itself to being a Democratic turnout machine this fall, Stewart is noncommittal. "We're still figuring it out," he says.

Privately, some party leaders complain that OFA isn't doing enough to campaign for vulnerable Democrats. The only true accomplishment from OFA's first year, they say, is the work it's done to build a national infrastructure for the president's 2012 re-election campaign. To reproduce the organizational structure developed by Obama for America in 2008, OFA has quietly deployed paid staff to all 50 states, building a network from state directors all the way down to a corps of supervolunteers, trained in organizing, who recruit an army of neighborhood team leaders. "There's a skeleton of a re-election campaign already set up — beyond a skeleton," says Figueroa, the campaign's former field director. "There's already meat to the bone in every state in the union. Three years away from the next election, that army is already being continually fed. If you're Barack Obama and his political operation, revving the engine, how is that not a good thing?"

The failures of the past year, however, have left a strong sense of betrayal among many who once were Obama's fiercest advocates. "After all the sweat and tears of the campaign," says the creator of a popular pro-Obama website, "we were owed the opportunity to fight for something." Adds another, "We thought we had earned an ownership stake in the future of our country through this campaign, but that ownership stake has been revoked."

Had Obama let his activists lead the charge and gone to the mat for health care reform, would the outcome have been any different? "I can't say that we would have health care reform," says Moulitsas. "But people wouldn't be so demoralized. We'd have an engaged base still willing to fight for that change. And I tell you what: We would not have lost Ted Kennedy's seat."

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