The question for Brock, though, is whether Media Matters, even with its increasingly grandiose ambitions, will be enough to satisfy him. “David wants to be a kingmaker in Democratic politics,” says one Democratic strategist who’s friendly with Brock, “and Media Matters is not sufficient to do that.” Recently, Brock started Equality Matters, an affiliated group devoted to gay issues, and Message Matters, which produces talking points for liberal activists and politicians; he also helped create an organization called the Progressive Talent Initiative, which seeks to incubate a new generation of liberal pundits.
Brock’s highest-profile move came this past fall, when, after the midterm elections in which conservative independent-expenditure (I.E.) groups like American Crossroads spent close to $200 million to help Republicans take back the House, he announced that he was forming an I.E. of his own. It would be called American Bridge, and he promised that it would flood the airwaves on behalf of Obama and other Democrats in 2012. In an interview with the New York Times, he boasted of his fund-raising record with Media Matters and predicted even greater success for American Bridge: “My donor base already constitutes the major individual players who have historically given hundreds of millions of dollars to these types of efforts. They just need to be asked, and I have no doubt they will step up at this critical time.” According to people familiar with Brock’s thinking, he wanted American Bridge to be the liberal analog to American Crossroads—which would make Brock the liberal analog to Karl Rove.
“The tortured gay intellectual who wrestled with his soul— man, is it a good show.”
But Brock quickly ran into problems. For one thing, although Obama’s campaign team had indicated that it wanted an I.E. group to help with his reelection, that didn’t mean it wanted Brock leading it. Some Obama people continue to harbor ill will toward Brock owing to his behavior in the 2008 Democratic primaries, when he seemingly turned Media Matters into an adjunct of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “If you think about his psychology, it’s all wrapped up in the revival of the Clintons, because they embraced him when he turned away from the right,” complains one Obama ally. There was also concern that Brock’s hyperpartisanship might not be such a good fit for a president who still strives to be post-partisan.
But more than any animosity or doubts, there’s the simple fact that the insular and controlling team around Obama simply doesn’t know Brock. When I asked one Democratic strategist who’s close to the White House about Brock’s relationship with Obama’s team, he replied, “I don’t think he has one. I’m not saying it’s negative; it just doesn’t exist.” Another Democratic strategist asks, “Do you think David Plouffe and David Axelrod are going to let David Brock go out and build an empire to explain Barack Obama’s policies and worldview to voters?”
Still, Brock seemed to believe there was one surefire way to overcome the White House’s objections—or at least force its hand: by raising so much money that Obama’s team had no choice but to let American Bridge become, as one liberal activist puts it, “the ‘It’ I.E.” of 2012. But when Brock went to his donor base and asked, it did not step up. For the first time in his fund-raising career, Brock didn’t have the magic touch. Peter Lewis, for instance, hasn’t given any money. “There are certain things that interest me and certain things that don’t,” he says. “These kind of groups can be a bonanza for ad agencies and political consultants and other horseshit.” In the end, Brock was forced to dramatically scale back his plans for American Bridge (it’s been resized to be smaller than Media Matters) and reduce its role to performing opposition research for other Democratic-leaning I.E. groups.
Brock’s failure to turn American Bridge into a political behemoth is in some ways attributable to his success with Media Matters. Many of his supporters believe so strongly in the mission of Media Matters that they don’t want Brock giving it anything less than his full attention. But their reluctance to embrace Brock’s newest endeavor also reveals something about how they conceive of him. Brock has long viewed David Horowitz as a cautionary tale—an apostate who, because he is constantly fighting old battles with his old self, has become an increasingly marginal figure. And yet, despite all his efforts to play the inside game, Brock still finds himself coming up against his past: a right-wing hit man who defected to the other side. “You know that saying the Obama people have, ‘Know your lane’?” says one progressive activist who’s friendly with Brock. “Everyone who has supported him knows his lane. They’re not going to embrace his moving to another lane.”