Campaigns often heat up after Labor Day, and a fighting spirit has clearly taken hold at the DNC, which launched an unusual defense of its midterms strategy on Thursday evening.
Organizing for America (OFA), the field arm of the Obama campaign that was rolled into the DNC, released a lacing rebuttal to a new TIME article reporting that OFA had become a shrunken "ghost of its former self." The article depicted OFA as an operation abandoned by voters and donors alike, while airing anonymous suggestions that campaign guru David Plouffe was surreptitiously using national funds to "rebuild an army for 2012 under the cover of boosting turnout in 2010." (Plouffe "strongly" denied the charge within the article.) TIME added geographic fuel to the fire, too, reporting, "OFA is putting staff into such states as Virginia, North Carolina and Arizona, which have few close statewide races this fall but which are all prime targets in an Obama re-election campaign."
At 5 p.m. Thursday, OFA posted an official response on the DNC website and circulated the text to reporters. Like the White House, OFA rarely publicizes written rebuttals to specific articles -- that would be a full-time job when the subject is the president -- and the reply was also striking for its heated tone. Blasting TIME's Jay Newton-Small as "a misinformed journalist" who did "poor reporting" with a "total aversion to the facts," OFA spokesman Lynda Tran hammered Newton-Small for relying on clueless or anonymous sources, and "falsely claiming that OFA is exclusively focused on turning out 'surge' voters."
OFA also unloaded on politicos quoted in the story, slamming Internet strategist Joe Trippi for comments that "convey ignorance about everything from" post-election summits to ongoing field work, and bracketing the oft-quoted Charlie Cook with scare quotes as a "poor 'expert'" who "has never spoken to anyone at OFA nor attended any events with OFA supporters or staff." Tran continued:
The author also cites the fact that OFA has been active in Virginia, North Carolina, and Arizona as evidence of her conclusion that OFA is more about 2012 than 2010... she leaves out the fact that OFA has offices in all 50 states and organizers and volunteers in all 435 Congressional Districts — an unprecedented field operation in a non-presidential year which has already helped win competitive races in 2009 and 2010... she was told that since January of 2009, 2.6 million new people have signed up for the OFA email list and 5.1 million people have taken action in support of the President’s agenda and his political priorities. Not surprisingly, these facts did not merit mention in the Time Magazine piece because they would have undercut the premise of the story the magazine wanted to write.
All told, the 850-word rebuttal was more than double the length of the original article.
TIME obviously struck a nerve. But the strong response is strategically odd -- a short piece in the print edition of the magazine is unlikely to rock Washington, while the DNC reaction gives it legs. Before, most of the (few) links to the piece were by conservative bloggers, not a very vital or persuadable constitutency for OFA. Then DNC officials began sounding off, and the item got picked up in Politico (and the Nation). Ben Smith, a widely-read Politico blogger, headlined a Thursday afternoon post on the dust-up, "DNC goes nuclear on Time, Cook for OfA critique." Smith's tweet on the kerfuffle was even crisper:
"OfA incredibly defensive."
Chuck Todd, the NBC News White House correspondent who regularly deals with top Obama aides, tweeted in response to this post that DNC officials are "super-sensitive on proving OFA was a good idea." I also asked TIME for its response to the response, and spokesman Daniel Kile emailed that the magazine “stands by the story and Jay Newton-Small’s reporting.”
On a personal note, I spent plenty of time on OFA while researching and writing a 74-page report about the organization's first year. The touchy and sometimes combative stance towards independent reporting on display here is familiar -- for a new school organization, OFA is pretty old school when it comes to transparency and dealing with hard questions from reporters and constituents. (I discuss its work and potential reforms at length in the report, so I won't rehash those points here.)
Beyond the press, though, the core argument of the TIME article seems off. The height of the 2008 campaign is not a logical or fair baseline for assessing participation in the off-season, and OFA has undoubtedly engaged supporters around the country with social, political and service activities, both online and off. (See the broad data above, or more granular indicators in my report.) While politicos gush about how a president can benefit from a mediocre midterm showing, the article offered no reason how such cyclical electoral politics relate to organizing, where relationships and long-term momentum are key. So I don't see any tension between a strong turnout in the midterms and a strong turnout in 2012 -- this is an area where the Plouffe/Stewart/Bird agenda for Obama activists is naturally in line with the Barack/Rahm ambition for a second term.
"If OFA didn't defend itself and challenge the premise of the Time story, which you agree was off, who would have? [T]his was a conclusion in search of facts. The sensitivity here is with the press who don't like to be challenged."
Sevugan also tweeted in response to Ben Smith, writing, "A story based on a predetermined conclusion in search of facts to support it[,] while ignoring facts that don't[,] should be [challenged]."
Ari Melber writes for the Nation, where this piece was first published.