Who Will Get Out the Vote for Democrats in 2010?

04/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reality check: Obama carried Massachusetts by 26% in 2008 -- but he couldn't get enough people out to overcome the motivated forces behind Scott Brown. Of course, Brown could have been a pumpkin, it wouldn't have mattered. What got those forces organized was fear of Obama and his Bolshevik-Muslim agenda, which is to say their image of Obama (who is, and always has been, centrist to his very core). That's the going explanation, anyway. But there's another layer.

Here's some interesting statistics from Sam Stein, to buttress the point:

I worry that the contempt progressives feel for these Tea-Party/Birthers may be blinding us to a hard fact. For supposed dummies, they have come a long way in less than a year. They have been very effective. Not only have Republican officeholders, facing primaries, given them veto power over policy--but they have caved on the rhetoric as well. John McCain me-tooing around that blowhard J.D. Hayworth is only the most obvious example. And that rhetoric creep poisons Obama's image in a more general way. It infects middle of the road independents, who know better than to worry about Obama's birth certificate, with a vague sense of underlying wrongness. We are close to a bipartisan conventional wisdom consensus that Obama's another Jimmy Carter (i.e. self-righteous and weak). If that settles in, it's game over for Democrats again.

My point is this: we have underestimated this movement. I think a lot of them understand exactly what they are doing--and I don't just mean the likes of Dick Armey.

I don't think all those people are clueless victims of the nefarious nexus of right wing PACS and Fox. I think many of them (not all) are actively and knowingly involved in shaping Obama's image, understanding that if they appear to believe it the MSM will conclude that it's a "side" that has to be "covered" (i.e.: spread). In a nutshell, I think that large numbers of them answered "yes" or "not sure" to the pollster asking if Obama is a Muslim just to keep the story going, just to keep the poison spreading.

Here's why I think that: while there was some controversy over commercialization last week about their gathering in Nashville that caused hopes to rise among some liberals--that wasn't the take-away for me. What I noticed was the discipline it took to forgo the outrageous outfits and signs. Above all, I noticed, that they are modeling their movement on--guess what?

The 2008 Obama campaign.

To understand how much the Tea Party movement owes to Obama '08, go back to the roots--back to the Dean Campaign of 2003. That was when the paradigm shift really happened, not just in the technology--but also in the psycho-cultural motivations of activists. Obama '08 was a Dean '03 upgrade. To understand the implications of that go to the best piece written about the '03 campaign, back when it was all unfolding. Called "The Dean Connection," by Samantha Shapiro, it appeared in the NYTIMES magazine (12/7/03)--and it's worth another look.

The piece brought out something that became so obvious by the time Obama '08 rolled around that we may have passed over it's general cultural significance: namely, that--for reasons described in my book, Mediated--this '03 Meet-Up movement was not so much about the cause as it was about the activists themselves. It was about the "You" Time magazine was soon to name "Person of the Year."

Shapiro summed it up this way: "People at all levels of the Dean campaign will tell you that its purpose is not just to elect Howard Dean president. Just as significant, they say, the point is to give people something to believe in, and to connect those people to one another." Lauren Popper, a Deaniac who gave up months of her life to the campaign, put it this way: ''The thought that he'll be president is a side effect,'' she said. ''This campaign is about allowing people to come together and tell their life stories.''

The Tea-Party/Birther movement is a manifestation of the same cultural phenomenon that drove the Dean and Obama campaigns. Because it's mostly aging white people who don't know what G3 even means, it's all too easy to miss that connection. They have grabbed the limelight, they are the reigning American Idols, they are the stars of today's unfolding political story. No wonder they're pumped. And, if they continue to smarten up the way they have been, they will be a huge force in 2010.

But what about all the "persons of the year" who made Obamamania happen? Will they get out and work long hours to stem the reactionary tide in 2010? If they do, it will have to be for the cause. The story won't be about them any more.