MoveOn and ACT: A Movement in Search of Its Next Cause

For many of us, here’s the real agony: New York money and sweat and political muscle played more of a role in this election than in any in recent memory—and even that wasn’t enough. George Soros and others with the means and the motive pounced on a loophole in the campaign-finance law to invent the most emotionally potent, lavishly funded, politically sophisticated campaign machine in Democratic Party history. We nurtured the so-called 527 groups that skirted fund-raising rules, like the Internet attack-engine and the policy-sharpening Center for American Progress. On Election Day, the get-out-the-vote group America Coming Together actually spent twice as much as the Democratic National Committee luring voters to the polls. It was a movement, a crusade, and it didn’t exactly work. Where can it possibly go now?

Ask the movement’s leaders and they’ll tell you that groups like ACT could become synthetic versions of what the Republicans have done so well organically over the years through church groups. “I’m a true believer that if you engage people at the local level, it trickles up,” says Tom McMahon, executive director of Howard Dean’s Democracy for America. “For a small organization that started six months ago, we did very well. Our goal is the next ten years. This is something that the Christian Coalition and the Gingrich revolution had. That’s what we’re trying to copy.”

“I hope a thousand flowers bloom,” agrees consultant Howard Wolfson, who helped on Hillary’s Senate campaign. “The Republicans have many think tanks. We need a network of idea-generating institutions like ACT. And we need infrastructure to promote our message, like our equivalent of talk radio and Fox News. If I were a billionaire and I wanted to promote progressive politics in this country, I would start a cable network. I would buy a newspaper, I would buy radio stations. When you have Sinclair running anti-Kerry propaganda and Clear Channel suppressing Democratic voices, you have a problem.”

But the trouble with crusades—Democratic ones, at least—is that they tend to field candidates that are, say, less than palatable outside the New Hampshire primary, particularly after their scream is sampled over and over on the Internet. Which leaves insiders wondering: Are MoveOn and the like a machine in the service of a party, or a movement with an agenda of its own? “The truth is, for the next election, we’re better off moderate, but if you want to start a movement, you have to plant a flag,” says consultant David Doak. “That’s what the Republicans did, starting with Barry Goldwater and coming to fruition with Ronald Reagan. We have to decide: Do we want to convince America what we believe is correct, or do we have to change our beliefs? I don’t know the answer. But trying to have it both ways hasn’t worked well, has it?”

If you believe we are in the midst of another Great Awakening—that Evangelicals now control any election—then you need another crusade. But what if all this heavy breathing over the Evangelical vote is overblown? In that case, says Harold Ickes, the movement should be narrowed and sharpened. “Look, there was no huge vote for George Bush,” fumes the longtime New York operative who helped raise money for ACT and headed the Media Fund, a pot of advertising money for Kerry. “He’s a sitting president during wartime. He won by only 3 million votes—that’s no big mandate.” Evangelicals were drawn to the polls, he says, by gay-marriage ballot questions—the same way Republicans used race as a wedge issue in the sixties. “So are the Evangelicals a runaway force in America? No.” MoveOn and ACT will carry on, Ickes says, though instead of targeting twenty states, “ACT will concentrate on three to five states, and use databases, modern technology, and old-fashioned door-knocking.”

The other medium, of course, is the message. “I think our side needs to figure out how to talk about these issues,” Ickes says. “Did you know that the number of abortions went up under Bush I, down during Clinton, and up again under Bush II? We never talked about that. Bill Clinton did a very good job of talking about alternatives to abortion and defused its potency.” Or, as another highly placed consultant puts it: “The reason we lost is we had a bad candidate who ran a bad campaign. Hopefully our next candidate will be a better candidate.”

Then there’s the other side’s machine to worry about. Though in the race’s final months, Republican-friendly 527s (perhaps you’ve heard of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth?) raised six times as much money as the Democratic groups, one fear is that the Republicans, now that they own the playing field, will rewrite the rules. “No one should be surprised if the Republicans in Congress try to put the 527s out of business,” says David Dreyer, a former deputy communications director in the Clinton White House whose consultant company advised Soros on where to make his political donations. “They wouldn’t miss their 527s if they were gone. The Republicans have more people capable of making $2,000 contributions, and they have richer relationships with groups like the NRA.”

But that’s hardly a reason to abandon the machine by the side of the road. In New York, it’s the passion and the money that matter, not the delivery system. “There’s a real risk that the Democratic Party runs,” says Dreyer, “and that is, when it finds something that works, it tries something else. If it walks away from this election thinking these organizations were ineffective, that would be a disaster. My biggest fear is that the money for these groups in 2008 won’t be as plentiful.”

Though, after four more years, New Yorkers may be ready to meet any hardship, bear any burden—and, if your name is Soros, pay any price.

MoveOn and ACT: A Movement in Search of Its Next Cause