MoveOnPAC Takes On the White House

George Bush strides confidently in the background, looking strong and presidential. As the images taken from his campaign ads referring to the Sept. 11 attacks scroll across the screen, a voiceover intones, "George Bush shamelessly exploited 9/11 in his campaign commercials." Soon after, we hear the voice of Bush's former counter-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke: "Frankly I find it outrageous that a president is running for re-election on the grounds he'd done such great things on terrorism. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11."

bushThis advertisement, which aired on CNN and Fox between Mar. 30 and Apr. 3, is part of a new campaign put together by MoveOnPAC.org. It is part of a coalition of 28 groups that aim to help fill the $100 million-plus fundraising gap between presumped Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and his rival, George Bush.

Since its founding in 1998, MoveOn.org has grown from an upstart cyber-activism group to an organization with a membership two million strong known for its immense grassroots clout. The affiliated MoveOnPAC.org was founded in 2000 specifically to support candidates in key races. During the 2002 elections, MoveOnPAC.org raised about $4 million for various races. Last fall it targeted Arnold Schwarzenegger during the California gubernatorial recall election with edgy ads highlighting his attitudes toward women.

This time around, preventing Bush's reelection is MoveOn.org's main goal -- a goal supported by over 23,000 donors who responded to a Mar. 24 appeal for donations with about $1 million in just three days.

Campaign observers say that the MoveOn Voter Fund, which runs ads exposing President Bush's failed policies in key battleground states, and similar groups like the Media Fund (run by former Clinton adviser Harold Ickes), will play a significant role in the election, but it is still unclear whether they will have an impact on the outcome.

"It's sort of undefined," says Evan Tracey, the COO of TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, a non-partisan political and media affairs tracking firm. "There's no real precedent for this in America politics. What they can accomplish is keeping the heat up on Bush and driving his negatives up."

And that's exactly what MoveOn.org executive director Eli Pariser hopes the ads will do. "With millions of jobs lost and rising healthcare costs, the only thing this administration has left to run on is its supposed leadership in countering terrorism," he says. "Now we know that there, too, the administration dropped the ball. This ad strikes at the core of Bush's case for re-election."

This unabashed targeting of Bush explains why "527 groups" (named for the section of the tax code they operate under) such as MoveOn Voter Fund and others are raising GOP hackles. Republicans claim that efforts by such groups represent illegal campaign donations.

In a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission, the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee called 527s part of "an unprecedented criminal enterprise designed to impermissibly affect a presidential election." According to the complaint, "this illegal conspiracy of donors and shadowy groups" is spending "soft money" of the type off-limits to political parties under McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform laws. Moreover, the Republicans accuse these groups of illegally coordinating their activities with the Kerry campaign, noting that Kerry's former campaign manager, Jim Jordan, is currently advising some of the media groups.

Some analysts equate the status of the MoveOn Voter Fund to groups such as the NRA, and are skeptical that the FEC will censure them. "The Republicans are just whining now because the progressives are doing what their allies have been doing for years," said Steven Hill, senior analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy. "The NRA and the Christian Coalition have been doing this for years. It's about time the progressive side caught up."

The 527s are in a legal gray area, says Tracey. "It's a case of it being easier to ask forgiveness than permission," he adds.

While there is no doubt that Kerry will be glad to have MoveOn's anti-Bush ads on air, MoveOn and other activists don't necessarily see the battle as solely between Bush and Kerry, and the ads reflect that perspective.

Pariser says that MoveOn ads are designed to spark discussion and media coverage, exponentially increasing their effect. "We hope that if we're really nimble and strategic, we can amplify the truth. Just by getting these ads out to a small group of people they will continue to circulate to the greater public," says Pariser.

Dan Johnson-Weinberger, director of the Midwest Democracy Center, agrees: "I think it's a problem if we define people against Bush only as Kerry supporters. This is about raising issues that need to be talked about regardless of the Democrat/ Republican debate."

While the high-profile national TV ads will be combined with local grassroots campaigns, Hill and other say that the key to the campaign's impact lies in its ability to target swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Missouri and Ohio.

"Sometimes national ads aren't as effective, because the message that resonates with a national audience may not resonate as well in those crucial fifteen states," notes Hill. "If MoveOn is doing national ads on TV, maybe they have something to learn from the NRA. The NRA doesn't do national TV ads, they target each state with tailored messages."

Coming during the height of the 9/11 commission hearings and amid growing public skepticism and despair about progress in Iraq, MoveOn is betting that its national message will have resonance at the local level. "The MoveOn ads are essentially saying out loud what people have been saying to themselves: that the Bush administration lies," says Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Others believe that in order to affect the outcome in November, MoveOn will have to go further than just attacking Bush's record. "The problem they have is that they don't really stand for anything, they don't have a strong answer. Attacking Bush is an easier sell from a message standpoint when you're a political party or an individual candidate," says Tracey.

When it comes to message, however, Pariser is confident that MoveOn has the White House beat. "You can spend million and millions on an ad campaign that says nothing, that's what Bush did with these really nice-looking ads with no substance," he says.

But substance alone will not suffice. To affect the outcome in November, folks at MoveOn will have to learn to apply their considerable power with laser-like precision. All politics is local -- so indeed is this race for the presidency.

Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. She can be reached at karilyde@aol.com.

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