The Right Wing Sets Its Sights on MoveOn
In a country ruled more through complacency than persuasion or coercion, MoveOn.org, the 3.3 million member progressive grass-roots group, continues to rattle the D.C. establishment by giving ordinary people the tools to get involved in politics.
MoveOn's ability to bundle small campaign contributions from tens of thousands of rank-and-file progressives and challenge candidates backed by the full weight of the American corporatocracy is causing Washington's traditional power brokers to lose some sleep. Last year -- a nonelection year -- MoveOn's PAC raised over $9 million from 125,000 donors who threw in less than 50 bucks each on average. It's expected to spend $25 million on candidates and independent ad buys in a full-press attack on the Republican Congress this cycle.
Since the 2004 election, the GOP and its allies have taken notice, and have tried, with very limited success, to Swiftboat the group into oblivion.
It began with a contest MoveOn held to find the best homemade campaign ad to use against President Bush. They got 1,500 submissions from their members -- too many to screen quickly -- and two of them compared Bush with Hitler. As soon as MoveOn organizers caught the ads, co-founder Wes Boyd said they "were in poor taste," that the organization "deeply regret[s] that they slipped through our screening process," and they were taken off the site.
But the right's water-carriers were off to the races. The ads were the subject of Drudge report "flashes" and Washington Times features. Fox News spent days on the story; host John Gibson asked what was becoming of America with "MoveOn.org and George Soros sponsoring these ads that compare Bush to Hitler?" Sean Hannity told a guest: "You guys on the left are going so far over the cliff," and Bill O'Reilly cited the ads as proof that the Democratic Party was "being held captive by the far, far left." The same voices were considerably less outraged when the Republican National Committee itself produced and distributed an ad -- called "despicable" by Slate's William Saletan -- that intercut scenes of Hitler's Germany with remarks by leading Democrats including John Kerry, Howard Dean and al Gore a few months later.
In the middle of 2005, with the Washington press corps awaiting the next installment of the "Plame-gate" soap opera, which was peaking at the time, Republicans stepped up the campaign against MoveOn; instead of attacking prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald or the Democratic Party leadership, the Republicans, in the words of a report in Rollcall ($$), "launched a full-scale attack" on the organization, "questioning the liberal group's patriotism and worldview."
At the time, few high-ranking GOP officials were commenting on the rumors of indictments swirling around the White House. But Ken Mehlman, National Republican Party chairman, responded to the mounting criticism of White House political advisor Karl Rove with this non sequitur: "It's disappointing," he said, "that once again, so many Democrat leaders are taking their political cues from the far-left, MoveOn wing of the party."
A month earlier, in a now infamous speech to the New York Conservative Party, Rove himself made waves when he opined that "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks, and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments, and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers." The statement got lots of media play and outraged Democrats and progressives, but the very next sentence got less attention: "In the wake of 9/11," Rove added, "liberals believed it was time to submit a petition ... [which] is precisely what Moveon.org did."
Painting an opponent as far out on the fringe and unworthy of trust is, of course, a favorite tactic of hacks everywhere. In a country with an abundance of "low information" voters and a media more focused on Nicole Ritchie's eating habits than any serious analysis of issues of public importance, participating in politics has largely become an emotive act -- all too many Americans vote for the pol with whom they'd like to have a beer, or the one they think better reflects their "values," however vaguely defined, or the one who looks better in that ubiquitous and saccharine family photo that every campaign trots out. The taller candidate has won 21 of the past 26 presidential elections.
In that context, defining who is and who is not within the narrow, sensible mainstream is a short-cut, a quick and easy way to appeal to people's values, and one at which the right has long excelled. In conservatives' well-disciplined messaging, there are no environmentalists or feminists or liberals -- just radical leftists and feminazis and eco-terrorists. A Freedom of Information Act request last year netted a Justice Department memo bemoaning the "radical militant librarians" who were opposing provisions of the Patriot Act.
MoveOn.org is an obvious target for right-wing causes. The group started in 1998 when a couple of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who were sick of hearing about the Monica Lewinsky scandal circulated a petition calling on legislators to just move on. In the eight years since, it's become one of the largest political/civic organizations in the country.
It's a key piece of progressive infrastructure in a broader movement that's started to coalesce since 2000, and it represents an enormous threat to the faux centrist status quo that has become so deeply entrenched in American politics, and to the elites that have long benefited from it. MoveOn.org does things that only the right has been able to do for several decades. The organization provide tools that allow people to organize events in their communities, giving them the face-to-face political space that the left once found in union halls and town hall meetings but hasn't had in some time. For years, the right has been able to do that kind of personal organizing through conservative churches -- especially with the advent of "mega-churches" in the 1970s -- while more liberal "mainline" churches tended to keep out of politics.
They're also able to mobilize tens of thousands of members to respond rapidly to issues as they unfold -- to write a letter or make a phone call and get on their representative's nerves -- which was also long an ability of religious right groups and the NRA, largely unmatched on the left. They also train campaign volunteers, turn out their members to canvass or phonebank for progressive candidates, organize media campaigns and keep a large and diverse online community up to date with what's breaking in Washington. Even more
What makes MoveOn's organizing model so threatening to those safely ensconced inside the Washington Beltway is that MoveOn, unlike its counterparts on the right, is largely bottom up, driven by constantly polling their members about which issues to focus on and which campaigns to support. To a great degree, that makes it immune to the conventional wisdom about what is and isn't important (and what is and isn't possible). Democratic strategists can whisper to Washington Post columnists that opposing the war in Iraq is bad politics, and that becomes the conventional wisdom. But MoveOn has to move with its membership. It has active campaigns for clean voting, clean election financing and renewable energy, all issues that are important to progressives, but to which the Democratic Party itself pays maddeningly little real attention.
Of course, emails and petitions only go so far. The other piece of the organization is MoveOn.org Political Action, one of the largest PACS in the country and fast becoming one of the Democratic Party's most important sources of funds. The PAC is the real threat to the corporatocracy because it offers progressive candidates an alternative to dialing up the usual circle of big-fish donors, lobbyists and trade associations for campaign dollars.
That independent source of cash -- a source that represented the interests of millions of ordinary progressives rather than the submissive DLC Democrats on K Street -- is what prompted the Republican Swiftboating last year. It began shortly after they raised an eye-opening $800,000 for West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd in just 48 hours. Tom Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told RollCall that MoveOn "certainly [has] more money there than Howard Dean and the DNC." The campaign against MoveOn was an effort to frighten candidates away from accepting MoveOn's support.
MoveOn sent out an email urging its members to support Pennsylvania Senate candidate Bob Casey in his race against Rick Santorum. Casey raised $150,000 in just 24 hours, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a press release calling Casey -- an abortion opponent who many progressives are holding their noses to support -- a member of the "ultra-liberal left." Fox News' host Bill O'Reilly said that people giving money to MoveOn's PAC might as well "give to the Nazi party." John Brabender, Santorum's media consultant, said that if Casey accepts MoveOn money, he "will have a lot of trouble in Pennsylvania, particularly in the middle part of the state. The group will be hung around Bobby Casey's neck." That hasn't been the case; an average of the five most recent polls in the Pennsylvania race shows Casey with a 12-point lead over Santorum.
They did it again in the recent Connecticut primary; as the neoconservative Joe Lieberman watched almost $1.2 million flow in from business PACs, MoveOn.org raised a quarter million dollars for challenger Ned Lamont, and 2,000 of its Connecticut members volunteered for the campaign. After Lamont's win, both the far right and the big-business wing of the Democratic Party again lashed out. DLC Fellow and former Bush official Marshall Wittman whined: "The only jihad many in the left wing in the party are interested in is the one against the party's former vice presidential standard bearer," and Dick Cheney warned that Lieberman's defeat would give "the Al Qaeda types" exactly what they wanted.
But Lamont came back from a 20-point deficit in the spring to win the race. In general, the swiftboating of MoveOn has been a miserable failure. The professional media aren't buying the "radical" label because the organization has so many members, and because of the group's support for centrist Democrats (in addition to Casey, MoveOn PAC has endorsed Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate). Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told RollCall that the motivation for the campaign against MoveOn was transparent: "They are trying to discredit and smear MoveOn because it's so successful," he said.
For their part, MoveOn's organizers seem too busy to worry about the smears. I asked Tom Matzzie, the group's Washington director, what he thought and he said, "It doesn't worry me. When they attack us, it means they're off their game plan." What's more, said Matzzie, when Republicans say MoveOn is some radical group trying to destroy America, "they sound like paranoid nuts while we're talking about issues facing the country."