I just may have found a campaign to love. Not a candidate, necessarily, but a campaign. We met one moonlit night in New York's Washington Square Park. Illinois senator Barack Obama was there, but what excited me were the other people. Their candidate may not change the world, but sometime down the road, they may.
The September 27 rally wasn't slick. The only band to play was dreadful; the first speaker was a seven or eight-year-old, girl who read a letter that I couldn't hear. Next came Jonathan, 16, from Harlem who said: "Obama is all about change, and change is what is needed in this country." And then, after a very long pause, appeared Cuauhtemoc Figueroa, Obama's national field director. If Obama can plant as many real roots in the states as Dean sowed netroots in the blogosphere, grassroots politics may yet grow a president with enough independence and spine to break with the establishment.
Figueroa, known as "Temo," proceeded to introduce the enormous crowd of celebrity-hungry New Yorkers to an extensive list of campaign volunteers. Among those was Jeff, a young lawyer who'd given up his home to the office-less campaign for the week (he slept on his roof), and a tiny blonde who is directing field operations in New Hampshire. I think Figueroa said she had just graduated from high school.
Conventional campaign calculus crunchers will likely conclude that Obama's fresh faces will be no match for Hillary Clinton's professional cut-throats in the upcoming primary contests. When I saw Clinton address an open-air rally in Washington, she was flanked by US senators, a former secretary of state and Grammy Award winner Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. When Obama took the stage in New York, he stood beneath the Washington Square arch, alone. (The most weighty of the rally's politician participants was state senator Bill Perkins, of Harlem.)
Then again, conventional campaign correspondents don't actually cover campaigns; they cover candidates. It's the problem with what we've come to call "horserace" coverage. It's all about the horses, never about the people in the stands. Barack Obama may not be the most interesting thing about the Obama campaign.
In New York, after the rally, Figueroa wasn't hanging with the media; he was hanging with the field workers. "We don't train volunteers. We train organizers," he told me. The son of farm-worker organizers (and a former top politico at the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees) Figueroa knows the difference between a volunteer - who does what she's told - and an organizer who's a decision-maker in her community.
At Camp Obama, the campaign's twice-weekly training sessions in Chicago, participants train with Figueroa's mentors - men like Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, once a United Farm Workers organizing director - and with the people who trained Obama himself - mentees of grassroots organizer Saul Alinsky.
It's about this campaign but it's also about seeding the states with people who have the tools to make change, says Figueroa. And we're not just talking about money or virtual tools. The big news from the Obama campaign may not be Obama's ballyhooed speech on foreign policy yesterday, or the 501,000 donations he's gathered from more than 350,000 people or even Obama's lead in Iowa over Clinton and Edwards in the latest Newsweek poll.
The big news may be from South Carolina, where, according to the local newspaper The State: "Obama has put together a high-tech and grass-roots get-out-the-vote campaign unmatched by anything seen in the state before." Obama is organized in all 46 counties. On Sunday, according to the campaign's in-state bloggers, first-time canvassers went door to door from 31 staging locations in 26 of them. Among the lynchpin institutions of Obama's South Carolina campaign are local barbershops and beauty salons. This is not your standard consultants and carpetbaggers' campaign.
For all his rousing rhetoric, the sad truth is that Obama's campaign promises are milquetoast. The most specific pledge he made in New York was to raise automakers' gas-consumption standards to 40 miles per gallon. That's not going to change the world.
Tuesday's foreign policy speech at DePaul University came on strong, then delivered weak, as in when he said: "Make no mistake: we must always be prepared to use force to protect America. But the best way to keep America safe is not to threaten terrorists with nuclear weapons - it's to keep nuclear weapons and nuclear materials away from terrorists." That's hardly visionary.
But the last time a campaign was this excited about it participants, Howard Dean was leading it. Dean's candidacy fizzled, but the blogosphere his campaign cultivated changed campaign calculus for good.