There's been a lot of talk about how heartland voters were repulsed by the gay-marriage-lovin' urban sensibilities of regions such as the Bay Area, and how our cosmopolitan morals carried the day for Karl Rove. No city better embodies this vilification than Berkeley, of course. But don't kid yourselves: Berkeley did more for John Kerry than any other city in the country. That is, two of its residents did: Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, the founders of MoveOn.org.
Cast your mind back to last winter. Every pundit and professional know-it-all presumed Bush would crush the Democratic nominee in fund-raising and blanket the airwaves with commercials. Liberal anger was percolating just beneath the surface, but Democratic operatives still hewed to Tom Daschle's hapless, Midwestern reticence. Then along came Howard Dean and his Internet fund-raising strategy, stunning people who had no idea how many pissed-off, deep-pocketed liberal professionals were willing to max out their gold cards to get rid of the incumbent.
MoveOn could have told them all about it. A year earlier, it established the template for the most surprising development this election: the rise of aggressive, well-funded, liberal attack machines, freed by campaign finance reform laws to hammer the president without having to worry about their own self-image. They could sling all the mud they wanted, and none of it would stick to John Kerry.
In 1998, MoveOn was just a small collection of genteel Clinton supporters dismayed by the politics of personal destruction. In 2004, it took those politics to a new level, raising roughly $55 million to get rid of George Bush, more than even the much-feared free-market bully Club for Growth. Its ads aired throughout critical swing states and slammed the president on outsourcing, corporate welfare, eliminating overtime pay -- and, of course, the war. MoveOn's toughest commercial quoted Bush's perfunctory jokes about weapons of mass destruction at the White House correspondents' dinner -- an event in which the president traditionally lampoons his own record -- and paired them with an image of a dead soldier's mother.
According to UC Berkeley political science professor Bruce Cain, ads produced by MoveOn and the other lefty 527s made all the difference for Kerry. What's more, he says, they're here to stay. "There is a permanent place for organizations like MoveOn, and it's created by the campaign finance laws passed at the national level," he says. "Whatever the outcome of the election, the reality is that the Democrats would have been in much deeper trouble without the 527/PACs like MoveOn. ... And it's clear that these organizations can mobilize a lot of people that the parties were not able to reach. And they were able to outraise the Republicans -- and outspend the Republicans -- in all the swing states."
Still, all of MoveOn's advertising money couldn't compete with the buzz generated by the Swift Boat Veterans for truth, who hijacked the campaign coverage for weeks with just a few hundred thousand dollars' worth of commercials. According to Bob Mulholland, a campaign adviser for the California Democratic Party, MoveOn's own sense of fair play worked against it. For all their anger, the group's leaders just couldn't bring themselves to assassinate George W. Bush's character, and reserved their critiques, no matter how sharply worded, for his policies. But the Swifties' attack was so personal, so ruthless and uncompromising, that it created enough of a sensation to redirect the national dialogue for several crucial weeks. "The Swift Boat went for the jugular -- they called an American hero not a hero," he says. "You don't get very far in politics with policy, in the sense of having an impact with a TV ad. ... If I were in charge, I'd be going after Bush on his dyslexia, his alcoholism, his wireless radio receiver, how he lost all three debates. Why not? That's the way these guys play ball."
But according to MoveOn cofounder Joan Blades, the group's most important contribution wasn't its money or commercials, but its get-out-the-vote drive, and the sense of community and civil engagement that such conversations produced. Blades claims to have set a goal of sending 440,000 voters to the polls -- a goal, she says, they exceeded by 32,000. "Thousands went to swing states; people were calling from house parties," she says. "It was really quite extraordinary. ... It's what politics is supposed to be about."
Ironically, Cain claims that MoveOn's voter drive turned out to be the least effective of its many operations. Because MoveOn didn't cooperate with other 527 organizations, he says, they all trod on one another's shoes and even irritated the very voters they were trying to reach. "These groups were all competing with one another, which led to inefficiency, particularly in the get-out-the-vote efforts," he says. "The candidate is not allowed to coordinate these groups, so these groups have to coordinate with one another, so five people don't go to the same house. The other thing is they have to rethink the strategy of bringing people in from out of state. This tactic seems to backfire, and it doesn't do as well as grassroots organizers in the state or in the district or neighborhood that you're trying to affect. What MoveOn and these organizations have shown is they can raise money and share information, but the next stage is going to be to learn how to affect the grassroots in the areas they want to influence. Otherwise, you run into this 'resentment of outsiders' phenomenon."
While MoveOn cofounder Wes Boyd acknowledges some overlap with other groups, he says the end result was worth it -- and not just because they met their turnout goals. Forget all the commercials and money, he says: the group's real accomplishment occurred in the thousands of civil discussions among individuals. MoveOn catalyzed a process in which people talked about politics among themselves, rather than passively absorbing hysterics on talk radio or thirty-second TV spots. And that, he says, can only return civic participation to a calmer, more restrained mode. "You've got this model of people screaming at each other on television," he says. "I think it's a vote-suppression effort that political discussion is presented as people screaming at each other. So this new discussion, of people behaving in a civil way, is heartening. ... The story in the media is attack and defend. The story of democracy is harder to define."
If this sounds like the mushy latte politics of suburban liberalism, that's because it is -- and it's actually one of MoveOn's greatest assets. The Democrats can't afford to ignore blue-collar America, or annoy it with the obvious lifestyle gulf between its leadership and its historic base. But MoveOn can, because it's a separate, more specific organizing tool. For years, right-wing leaders have steadily built satellite organizations such as the Christian Coalition or the National Rifle Association, groups that can focus all their energy on specific demographic groups without an obligation to appeal to the entire country. But until MoveOn came along, no one had built an organization that catered specifically to suburban, college-educated liberals. The most powerful demographic group in the country finally has a voice.
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