Troops Rally For Regime Change Battle

Super Tuesday was John Kerry's Rubicon. The furious, but not so fast general presidential contest began, in all its excessive glory and gore. While George W. Bush made his disingenuous congratulatory phone call to Kerry on Tuesday, the president's campaign was working to churn out the beginning of millions of dollars of television and radio ads that will try to negatively define John Kerry for swing voters in a number of key states. Kerry, for his part, didn't hesitate to set the tenor of his campaign -- his victory speech ripped Bush on health care, jobs and national security, and charged the administration with having "the most inept, reckless, and ideological foreign policy in modern history."

Meanwhile, the online advocacy group MoveOn.org, intent on covering Kerry's back, shifted its three-tier operation into high gear. It urged its members to open their wallets and contribute to the Kerry campaign, and MoveOn PAC asked members to become campaign activists and pledge a certain number of hours per week reaching out to potential voters on the web, telephone, and in face-to-face conversations. (On March 5, that number had reached 6,677,580 hours.) And the MoveOn.org Voter Fund (the organization's 527 arm) launched the first shot in a new volley of television ads critical of Bush's policies slated to air throughout the 17 battleground states (those decided by fewer than 6 percentage points in 2000).

MoveOn is now over two million people strong in the United States. This number is unprecedented in the history of hands-on activist organizations with the freedom to operate in political campaigns. As MoveOn itself points out: "We're bigger than the Christian Coalition at its peak. To put it another way, one in every 146 Americans is now a MoveOn member. And we're still growing fast."

MoveOn is joined in its work by a range of others, including America Coming Together (ACT) and the Media Fund, which are both supported by labor union SEIU, Sierra Club, Emily's List, and high-powered donors. Other groups are doing non-partisan voter registration and education work, including the progressive coalition America Votes, Women Vote! Project, Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, League Of Young Voters, National Voice and hundreds of other voter registration, grassroots and advocacy groups. Collectively they all make up the diverse army that can be defined as the "regime change movement."

Partisan groups like MoveOn.org Voter Fund and ACT did not endorse a candidate in the primary. In the spirit of Anybody But Bush Again, they waited for a potential nominee to emerge, and now that he has, they are firmly behind him and digging in for the big fight.

As journalist Christopher Hayes wrote in January, "Issue advocacy and voter contact in an election year is nothing new, but never before have progressive groups come together to coordinate their efforts, pool their resources and collectively execute the program."

Power Of The 527s

Because of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, and the progressive movement coming alive in recent years -- much as the Christian Coalition did in the '80s and '90s -- this election has a new dynamic.

McCain-Feingold indirectly empowered the Democrats' progressive base, since it moved much of the soft money (unregulated money, in contrast to the $2,000 personal limit for each candidate) out of the Democratic and Republican parties. Into the breach stepped the 527s, which operate independently of parties and candidates, but are powerful anti-Bush forces and have been well-funded by progressive philanthropists such as George Soros and Peter Lewis, and labor unions like AFSCME and SEIU. (There are some Republican 527s, but they are not nearly as developed at this stage.)

These 527s are controversial, in part because Republicans see how progressives, with the help of big donors, have created an infrastructure that can do battle while Kerry gets his funding legs over the next month. Kerry spent his war chest winning the primaries and finished with just $2 million in the bank, while the Bush campaign intends to spend at least $100 million before the political conventions this summer. Kerry announced his intention to raise $80 million to compete with Bush. After the conventions each candidate will receive $75 million in matching federal funds.

The Federal Election Commission has issued complicated rules for potentially restricting the activities of the 527s, but there is a heated debate about what McCain-Feingold stipulated and how the rules should be applied. Stay tuned, because this topic will be bouncing around for the next month or two.

Kerry the Contender

In the meantime, the various factions of the regime change movement are hard at work. Besides covering the Kerry campaign with television ad buys and registering voters in key states, MoveOn et al play another important role; they can work to create an infrastructure to support Kerry after he is elected and presumably hold him accountable when the pressures from corporate interests mount.

They can also help to keep the candidate honest. It was on the steam of progressive support that the Massachusetts senator, over the last six months, morphed from Candidate Kerry into Kerry the Contender. Any guy who blazes through the primary season the way John Kerry has is bound to walk with a spring in his step. But will Kerry be able to keep his spine straight when the going gets tough?

As John Nichols wrote in the Nation, the DLC will lean on Kerry to soften his rhetoric, hoping to make him more palatable to moderates. "With the nomination fight winding down, Kerry will be pressured to devolve toward the cautious centrism that characterized the early, 'going nowhere fast' stage of his campaign." That would be a shame, and poor strategy, too. What the Democratic Party needs is a good strong streak of populist outrage, and the regime change movement is counting on it. Kerry should heed Nichols' reminder that, "when he started evolving into a more aggressive and progressive candidate, he started winning."

Which Side Are You On?

No one is fooling themselves that the next eight months will be easy. The presidential campaign will essentially be a nasty war in which advertisements and media coverage are the bombs, while grassroots voter registration are the ground troops in communities and states that are truly split. Campaign newbies are advised to apply the "tuff skin" and stay focused. As the progressive base of the election campaign keeps gaining momentum and visibility, many organizations will inevitably become targets for Republican smear attacks.

This election pits political sides from almost two distinct cultures: On the Bush side is the southern and western predominantly fundamentalist Christian, white-male dominated, conservative voter, wary of or downright opposed to minorities, gays and feminists. On the Democratic side is the more urban, suburban, diverse voter in the northeast, Midwest and west coast, who believes that resources should be shared and certain rights protected, and who rejects the intolerance of Bush's fundamentalist base. On top of it all, the Bush administration has opted for a culture war campaign, focusing on religion, gay marriage and guns. And the right to choose, environmental sustainability and economic justice will all be hanging in the balance on Nov. 2, 2004.

With positions, messages and values this starkly opposing, there won't be many undecided voters in this race.

The Battle Plan

America Coming Together is serving as the "footsoldiers" of the movement in the battleground states, which will likely be Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. ACT's mission, according to its president, Ellen Malcolm, is to "mobilize millions of voters who will say no to the Republican agenda at every level." Using both sophisticated technology and plain old shoe leather, ACT workers canvas neighborhoods and go door to door, talking to people and registering voters. As ACT steadily adds new Democratic-leaning voters to the rolls, MoveOn has already made a major mark.

Last fall, MoveOn.org Voter Fund set a goal of raising $10 million in small contributions from members in order to air advertisements in battleground states. With 170,000 MoveOn members contributing an average of $60 each, matched by some of the top donors, MOVF exceeded its fundraising goal. On March 4, MOVF kicked off the last stage of the $10 million campaign, running TV ads in 67 media markets in 17 states.

In most states, MOVF ads focus on the "kitchen table economy," highlighting issues such as job losses to outsourcing and Bush's plan to eliminate overtime pay. In other states, including Florida, Maine, Minnesota and Nevada, MOVF will run "Child's Pay" (winner of the Bush In 30 Seconds ad contest), which underscores the Bush budget deficit. (This issue resurfaced with a vengeance after Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recently suggested cutting vital services and Social Security benefits in order to pay off the burgeoning federal debt.)

MoveOn president Wes Boyd announced Friday that the organization would spend another $1 million on television ads highlighting the growing economic insecurity in the country. "In light of the disappointing jobs numbers today, which demonstrate again that the President has no plan for getting many Americans back to work, we've decided that it's important for our message to stay on the air," Boyd said.

Real People Matter

MoveOn has demonstrated forcefully -- as did the Dean campaign -- that real people still matter in American politics. Small donors have the clout to undermine the most corrupt elements of American politics, in which political giving is almost always a quid pro quo; corporate lobbyists trade money for policy favors and the wealthy for access to politicians.

As MoveOn is the first to point out, this tidal wave of engagement and activism isn't exclusive to them. Virtually every progressive group, from Greenpeace to the ACLU, has seen an increase in membership and donations. Circulation of progressive magazines are way up, while web traffic to independent news sites is through the roof. President Bush said he was a uniter, and he was right; he is uniting people across America to fight to get their country back.

The new democratic groundswell draws its strength from the hopes of millions of people, standing up and taking action for a better country and a better world. They refuse to let lobbyists, attack politics and fear-mongering destroy America's democracy. Against the courage and conviction of such people, even Karl Rove and Bush's $100 million campaign fund don't look so daunting.

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet, currently on leave. Tai Moses is senior editor of AlterNet.

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