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Agressive Progressives 

by Michelle Goldberg


Bill O'Reilly wants its nonprofit status revoked. Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie sees it as part of the "Democrat plan to subvert campaign finance laws." House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's office plays phone pranks on its staffers.


Clearly, MoveOn.org has arrived.


Founded in 1998 by married Silicon Valley millionaires Joan Blades and Wes Boyd (the people behind those cute little flying toasters you saw on everybody's screens back in the '90s), MoveOn has become the most important political advocacy group in Democratic circles -- and arguably the most important in American politics. Working with Hollywood and political superstars, and with legions of frustrated people at the grassroots, it has raised more than $10 million from its 1.7 million members, many of whom can be quickly mobilized for demonstrations and other political projects. And in the last half of 2003, it seems to have hit critical mass. Now, with billionaire George Soros pledging financial aid to the organization, MoveOn appears to be at the hub of a new political synergy that may give the Democrats their best hope for defeating incumbent George W. Bush in 2004.


All this has the right worried. MoveOn, they know, is part of a massive campaign gearing up to try to beat Bush in 2004. Soros, along with philanthropist Peter Lewis, pledged earlier this month to match every $2 donation to the MoveOn voter fund with a dollar of their own, up to $5 million. MoveOn will use the potential $15 million pot to buy airtime for anti-Bush campaign commercials during the presidential campaign. The Republican National Committee Web site features letters fretting that "third-party special interest groups will spend between 360- to- 420 million dollars for the expressed purpose of defeating the President in 2004."


Progressives say those numbers are exaggerated to scare up contributions from the conservative base, but there's no question that, between MoveOn, Soros and Howard Dean, a new breed of aggressive progressives is changing American politics. And while conservatives have complained, they haven't been able to hamper these groups' efforts. Indeed, MoveOn has mastered a kind of ideological jujitsu. Republican attacks just add to its strength.





Overnight Sensation -- On Nov. 21, the Republican National Committee unveiled the first ad of the Bush reelection campaign, rebuking Democrats for criticizing the president's handling of Iraq. It begins with a clip from Bush's last State of the Union address, in which Bush warns of the catastrophes that terrorists may sometime unleash. Then words flash across the screen: "Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists." Conflating the war in Iraq with the war against al-Qaida, its message is clear: Bush's opponents are soft on terror.


Within hours, MoveOn e-mailed its members, seeking $500,000 to counter the Republican spin. "When Republicans equate the war on Iraq with the war on terrorism, we'll remind the public of the truth," said MoveOn's message. "When Republicans raise money from wealthy donors and corporate CEOs to attack the Democrats, we'll raise it with hundreds of thousands of small contributions from people across America... Today, we can show the GOP what they're up against. They're paying $100,000 to run their ad. Together, we can raise $500,000 today to run ads that get out the truth in key battleground states."


In five hours, they raised half a million dollars for the MoveOn voter fund.


"They get things done," says Todd Gitlin, the veteran activist and Columbia University professor. "They raise money, they hold straw votes, they're constantly dreaming up practical activities that have a constituency."


Though Gitlin says MoveOn has taught progressives about the Internet's potential, it's gained respect and influence in the Democratic Party the old-fashioned way: by raising cash. "The big watershed for them was the proof that they could raise piles of money before the midterm elections," says Gitlin. "They demonstrated they could raise six-figure sums in a day or two. A few months later, they demonstrated they can be instrumental in organizing demonstrations. They were the force that organized the candlelight vigils [against the Iraq war]. That was international. They've straddled the discourse of mainstream politics and the discourse of outsiders. They seem to be both insiders and outsiders. That appeals to those who are both moralists and hardheaded."


Predictably, as MoveOn has grown, the right has pounced, though conservatives have yet to figure out a way to cause the group more than mild annoyance. In October, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's office, angry at MoveOn members calling to protest DeLay's stance on FCC regulations, started forwarding the calls to MoveOn organizer Eli Pariser's cellphone.


MoveOn's mere existence drives Fox News fulminator Bill O'Reilly into such fits of rage that he once devoted a segment of his program to attacking the group while refusing to allow its staff to answer his charges on the air. On his Sept. 17 show, he said: "Now the MoveOn.org people wanted to come on here, but I can't have them on because, you know, they're going to attack Bush. I got to defend Bush." He proceeded to rant against MoveOn's nonprofit status, saying, "I don't know why we're giving tax-exempt status to propaganda outfits ... When you say you're nonpartisan, as MoveOn.org says it is, and then you're not, that's a lie, is it not?" O'Reilly fails to register comparable outrage at the partisan activities of nonprofits such as the Christian Coalition and Concerned Women for America.


Far from being intimidated, MoveOn has set its sights on Fox. On Nov. 21, it announced the creation of "Fox Watch," organizing thousands of volunteers to monitor the cable channel for distortion and bias.





Centrist Orientation -- Though its tactics might be insurgent, MoveOn's political orientation isn't far from the center of the Democratic Party. The group sees itself as representative of the new silent majority, average Americans abused by right-wing ideologues who claim a monopoly on national definition. Its support suggests just how many people in America have felt voiceless and yearned for some way to make themselves heard.


"MoveOn has been tagged in mainstream media as a liberal activist group, when in fact the positions they've articulated have tended to fall more in the center," says Jonah Seiger, a visiting fellow with the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "Their birth was a moderate position on the Clinton impeachment -- censure the president and move on. Their position on the war was also a middle-of-the-road position -- give inspectors time."


That is partly because Boyd and Blades are businesspeople, not ideologues. In fact, they never planned to get into politics at all. Boyd says that if it hadn't been for the impeachment, "we wouldn't have gotten involved in politics. But at a certain point, you can't look away. You wonder about what was lost and what we could lose if we don't step forward."


MoveOn is also moving into the kind of face-to-face community building pioneered by MeetUp.com and the Dean campaign. It's encouraging its members to hold thousands of house parties across the country on Dec. 7 to screen Robert Greenwald's documentary, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War. Guests at these parties will be able to join a conference call with the director and submit questions for him online. "This'll be fun, but it's also strategic," says an e-mail from MoveOn to its members. "Coming together, we'll strengthen the MoveOn community. This is also a great way to get the word out -- you can invite friends and co-workers who aren't yet part of MoveOn."


According to Boyd, MoveOn's current harmony stems largely from a common foe. Bush has done far more than anyone else could to make MoveOn's base indivisible.


"I wouldn't give too much credit to the process," Boyd says. "I think it's easier to have a clear opponent that unifies all progressives. There's much less nattering going on among progressives right now than I think has historically been the case. My guess is that if there was a new president, the first thing we'd have to deal with is factionalization."


MoveOn's members hope to have such problems.





There are two planned showings of Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War in the Inland Northwest on Sunday, Dec. 7. At Coeur d'Alene's Harding Center (Wallace and 15th), the video will be shown at 4 pm, followed by a nationwide conference call at 5:30 pm. In Spokane, the Gonzaga University Justice Club is showing the film in a private home at 4:30 pm. Seating is limited, so you must call first, 217-3204 or 677-0993.





Publication date: 12/04/03

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