12/25/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

After Obama: How Dems Can Keep Party Going

Much of the sweeping victories enjoyed by the Democratic Party this November have been credited to three major catalysts: Barack Obama, for his campaign and fundraising efforts; the campaign committees, for their influential fifty-state-strategy; and President Bush, for producing the most opposition-friendly political climate since Richard Nixon.

These post-election acknowledgments ignore one crucial factor. In the past two years the progressive movement has built an infrastructure that, while still in its relatively nascent stages, can be tremendously influential.

Groups like Progressive Accountability, CAP Action Fund, National Security Network, Women's Voices Women's Vote, Brave New Films and others (many of them unions), went largely unheralded during the election cycle. But behind the scenes, they put in place a system that churned up opposition research, helped influence the media, charted out the electoral landscape, and was often seamless in delivering a message. In short, they beat the GOP at its own game.

And yet, weeks after their work is finished, there is uncertainty about what's next.

The Obama team has the resources to maintain its strategic advantages. The DNC is committed to continuing the 50-state-strategy even after Howard Dean's departure. But Democratic officials are still exploring ways to ensure that an infrastructure that took more than a decade to assemble remains intact.

"The Democratic Party now has, for the first time in a generation, superior infrastructure and really good research," Paul Begala, a famed strategist who often worked with these groups, told me a few weeks ago. "As a Democrat I want the party to continue to do that. And I feel very confident that they will. If you believe, as I do, that politics is about ideas, how you argue and channel those ideas matters most. It is more important than knocking on doors, because once you knock on a door and someone answers what do you tell them?"

The benefits of a stable infrastructure -- which includes outside groups, shared data, coordinated communications, and systems that harness young talent -- are painfully clear. Beyond keeping voters active, it can give the party tremendous leverage over both lawmakers and the press. A veteran of the Clinton years recalled how each day during that administration, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson "were echoing the RNC's talking points and we were beaten to the punch."

"We didn't have a capacity to get out there on a moment's notice," he added. "We didn't have our 'own' media."

Obama does, to a large extent, have that capacity. His email list and website reach millions of people -- many of whom are as devoted to him as to any political philosophy. But even his campaign used ideologically aligned groups as an occasional crutch. And a source close to the president-elect says he is sincerely interested in keeping that infrastructure in place.

"The Obama team is committed to sustaining this outside advocacy effort," this strategist told me.

The first question facing Democrats is how to centralize this portion of the party without a galvanizing election. Howard Dean, the departing Democratic National Committee chair, has an answer.

"Do it through here," he said of the DNC in an interview last week. "I'd like to consider this becoming a grassroots organization, not just to win elections but to win programs, to get programs passed... to push out a president's message and go door-to-door for health care reform, and for climate change."

"Campaigns are not for education," he added. "They are for winning. Afterwards, governing is for education. And there is enormous potential among the grassroots community for educating by reaching out to people."

Dean may be pushing against prevailing wisdom, which suggests that elections are about learning. But in many regards he is right. An example of when infrastructure proved remarkably effective as an "education" tool is the debate over privatizing Social Security in 2005 -- when progressive groups of all colors (labor, veterans, women's issues, etc...) punched holes in Bush's proposals with a largely coherent message. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the immigration debate, in which a lack of cohesion allowed GOP groups to derail any moderate or progressive reform proposal.

But a centralizing force for the Democratic infrastructure is only helpful if there is enough money to build it. During the presidential campaign, Obama could not legally coordinate with outside groups. But he successfully convinced the Democratic financiers to channel their money to him and few else. The draining of the swamp forced many organizations to scale back their election season ambitions.

Now, without the prevailing need to get a Democrat in the White House and with a debilitating economic crisis stifling the most politically philanthropic, there may not be enough loot to keep these outside organizations operating.

"Every group on the left and probably every group on the right will have to face the problem that we just whipped out a trillion of stock assets among the wealthy donors of the right and left. And it is quiet possible that many progressive donors will think, oh, well, our job is done," said Bob Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, in a recent phone interview.

And yet, Borosage himself adds the caveat: having been in the political wilderness for so long, the progressive id now dictates that nothing should be taken for granted. There is, he says, an understanding that all the gains made in the last few years could be lost just as quickly. A fallout and consolidation may be likely -- the White House, for starters, will hire away many of the best staffers from these outside groups. But it shouldn't be debilitating.

Sure enough, in a diary written for the Huffington Post days after the election, Gara LaMarche, a major Democratic donor, sounded the call to arms when it came to bolstering the party's infrastructure.

"To govern effectively and promote his agenda on economic security, energy, expanded health coverage, education, the restoration of civil liberties and other matters, Obama will need to keep his army mobilized," LaMarche wrote. "Doing this is as important as drafting legislation and picking cabinet secretaries."