MoveOn moves up

O'Reilly, DeLay and the GOP have declared war on it. But the online citizen movement grows richer and stronger by the day.

By Michelle Goldberg
Published December 1, 2003 10:06PM (EST)

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. A piece in David Horowitz's FrontPage Magazine worries: "It could bypass the mainstream media, sneak around campaign spending limits, and become its own powerful channel for Leftist communication, indoctrination and mobilization."

Clearly, has arrived.

Founded in 1998 by married Silicon Valley millionaires Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, 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. Lauded as the Christian Coalition of the left, it's lately been the object of a slew of admiring profiles in Time, Details and elsewhere. It has been a significant influence on the presidential campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Now, with pro-democracy 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 Republican 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. Soros has also pledged $10 million to America Coming Together, a group that, as its Web site says, plans to "conduct a massive voter contact program, mobilizing voters to defeat George W. Bush and elect progressive candidates all across America." The Republican National Committee Web site features letters from Gillespie fretting that "third-party special interest groups will spend between 360- to- 420 million dollars [sic] 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 are 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.

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.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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