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Curse of the Control Freaks

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Politico's article today is the latest in a string of articles about the massive edge in money pro-Republican outside groups have over pro-Democratic groups. The article cites a $23 million to $4 million dollar ratio in advertising so far. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that outside groups tend to be trusted more than political party advertising.

The article makes pretty clear that some Democrats on the Hill want to blame the outside groups on our side for not doing enough, and we will see more of that kind of blame game in the coming weeks. It is certainly understandable that individual members who take tough votes are frustrated when big corporate interests dump money on their districts for ads that in many cases are just blatant lies, and no one comes to their defense. I know the party committees are pulling their hair out with the barrage of corporate money being thrown into targeted races everywhere. But here's the deal: congressional leaders need only look down the street, Pennsylvania Avenue to be precise, to find the answers as to why there isn't more money going into independent expenditure efforts on the Democratic side.

This is in part a historical problem, a pattern in the party leadership that I sometimes refer to as the curse of the control freaks. Republicans for many years have understood far better than Democrats that outside issue and ideological groups ought to be empowered, not discouraged. Haley Barbour, Karl Rove, and other top Republicans have for years happily worked hand in hand with Grover Norquist, the NRA, the Christian Coalition, the Chamber of Commerce, the Koch Industries front groups, and the entire right-wing infrastructure. Republicans came to their strategy meetings, attended their fundraising dinners, signed their direct mail pieces and emails and Tweets and text messages. Republican operatives have for decades understood that conservative organizations with well-known brands had more credibility with key blocs of voters than either political party and most candidates.

The same is true with progressive groups and key voting blocs as well, but the Democratic Party has never paid these groups much attention. Polling shows quite clearly that many swing suburban voters find ads or mailings from Planned Parenthood, the League of Conservation Voters, and groups like them far more credible than ads from the Democratic Party. Union members are far more likely to read and respect a mailing from their union than a partisan mail piece.

These trends are even bigger in an election cycle like 2010, when both parties' brands are in the mud. Independent group messages have far more credibility and clout than those from party and candidate committees -- even groups with generic-sounding names no one has heard of. Republican strategists like Rove got this early, and went about methodically organizing a network of corporate money to get involved in independent expenditure ads in swing races all over the country. But the Obama White House, sure of its fundraising ability and organizing genius, has consistently sent the signal to Democratic donors to not support outside efforts. They did it after they won the primary in 2008; they did it when they set up OFA to operate solely inside the DNC in 2009; they did it during the health care fight when they felt HCAN was being a little too independent in pushing for a public option, sending a clear signal to donors not to give to them at crucial times during the fight; they did it when ACORN had some bad publicity, very quickly making the decision to distance themselves and let them die even though no group has registered more voters or turned out more people in the last 10 years than ACORN.

I have been fighting this battle inside Democratic strategy circles for 15 years now, but the problem is worse with the current team at the White House. The folks running the Obama political operation have always believed they could control the message and the resources of the party better than anyone else, and that they didn't need or want to empower outside progressive groups. Now embattled House and Senate candidates are paying the price, and it is a bitter price to have to pay. The groups that do have resources that are pro-Democratic -- labor, MoveOn, Emily's List, the trial lawyers -- are doing their best to stem the tide. But corporate money in the post-Citizens United era is swamping us, and unlike in some cycles in the past (2004, 2006), wealthy progressive donors were sent signals not to engage, or just not cultivated at all, and the result is that we are being badly outspent.

One final note on all this: the irony of outside progressive groups being blamed for not doing enough to help the Democrats when the White House has been complaining about the "left of the left" and the "professional left" for many months -- and de-motivating donors the whole time -- should not be lost on anyone. You can't attack progressives for being too strident and then wonder why they aren't doing more and still have much credibility.

As I have written in recent days, I still have hopes that Democrats can do better this cycle than the conventional wisdom suggests, especially if the Democrats use a pro-reform populist message that is actually effective. But the curse of the control freaks is not helping anything.