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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Fundamental Ignorance

At the height of the Clinton impeachment, a pair of software entrepreneurs designed a website which hosted a one-sentence petition asking Congress to “immediately censure President Clinton and Move On to pressing issues facing the country.” The couple — Joan Blades and Wes Boyd — then put a link to the site in an email and sent the message to fewer than 100 friends. Somehow, their message struck a chord with the nation’s progressive psyche, and had an impact far greater than anyone could have foreseen.
Within weeks, the couple’s petition had more than 250,000 signatures. Boyd bought an ad in the New York Times and began to use the website and its list of email addresses to organize volunteers to lobby against impeachment. The list of supporters continued to grow, and after the impeachment proceedings sputtered to a close, Blades and Boyd turned their energy to new causes, like campaign finance reform.
Then, in the wake of September 11th, a twenty one year old kid named Eli Pariser working for a nonprofit in Boston built a new website and hosted another petition — calling on world leaders to use “moderation and restraint in responding to the recent terrorist attacks.” Pariser sent an email with a link to the site to his friends and family, just as Boyd and Blades had done three years earlier. And just as with the Move On petition, something tipped — within weeks, Pariser had collected signatures from more than 500,000 people. Wes Boyd was one of those who saw the website. He immediately recognized the political potential of this peace movement and asked Pariser to join forces.
At that point, MovOn.org became something entirely new in politics — mobilizing millions of volunteers with every email; raising millions of dollars through a network of small donors and sympathetic millionaires; endorsing candidates, running ads, and generally making a whole lot of noise about the issues of the day.
There are definitely some Democrats who wish that MoveOn would be a bit more discrete, but there are plenty of Republicans who want an organization just like it.
Too bad they fundamentally do not get the MoveOn concept.
Last year, a group of conservatives launched an organization called Freedom Watch to much fanfare. They hired a cadre of former Bush staffers to run the operations, they leased 10,000 square feet of expensive office space in DC, and discussed an operating budget of $200 million. They talked openly about being a conservative counterweight to MoveOn.org. Now, the results:

[A]fter a splashy debut last summer, in which it spent $15 million in a nationwide advertising blitz supporting President Bush’s troop escalation in Iraq, the group has been mostly quiet, beset by internal problems that have paralyzed it and raised questions about what kind of role, if any, it will actually play this fall.

Turns out that much of the group’s financial support came from a single wealthy donor — Sheldon G. Adelson, the chairman and chief executive of the Sands Corporation. The casino mogul has given generously to Republican candidates and causes — including 527s and nonprofits — and many conservatives quietly began to hope that he would be their George Soros, opening his checkbook year after year.
But Freedom Watch burned through Adelson’s initial contributions of $30 by spending freely on stuff like expensive media buys, and he seems to be unhappy with the result. Thinking they had it made, staffers for the organization never cultivated relationships with other donors who might be willing to see this project take off. Their executive director has resigned, their board is unhappy, and they are reconsidering their mission.
Most importantly, they never conducted any significant infrastructure building, and that is exactly why Freedom Watch will never be MoveOn.org. Say what you want about the liberal organization, but it has very carefully built and nourished a powerful network of activists. Its contact lists represent millions of progressives who are ready to be engaged in a mission of change. Despite support from some big-dollar-donors, it is that bottom up support which makes MoveOn.org a real force in politics — not a single contributor and a couple of veteran operatives.
As James Vega said here recently, Freedom Watch and organizations like it pose a real potential danger to Democrats. But that’s only if they can get their act together. Right now, they simply don’t get it.

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