Why MoveOn didn't move on bankruptcy

Eighteen Democratic senators backed the bankruptcy bill in Thursday's vote. Could MoveOn.org have made a difference?

By Julia Scott
Published March 12, 2005 12:03AM (EST)

The passage of the bankruptcy bill by the Senate on Thursday was a dark hour for the Democratic Party. No fewer than 18 Democrats voted for the legislation, which vocal opponent Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts called "a nightmare for the poorest of the poor and the weakest of the weak." Given the bill's consequences for middle-class families, women and elderly folks forced to declare bankruptcy because of insurmountable credit card debt, often due to job loss or big medical bills, we wondered why grassroots bellwether MoveOn.org didn't ask its members to act on the issue. Or even mention it on its Web site, for that matter.

According to Eli Pariser, MoveOn's executive director, it was because they didn't think it would have made a real impact. "Because of the solid Republican support for the bill, terrible though the bill is, it wasn't something that we could make a difference by weighing in on," Pariser told War Room by phone on Friday. He said that MoveOn's members had chosen to focus on two other "critical fights that we can win" -- namely Bush judicial nominations, and the battle over Social Security.

Back in June 2003 MoveOn turned its attention to the FCC media ownership vote, a fairly obscure issue at the time, generating thousands of phone calls and emails to Capitol Hill, and raising national awareness of the issue. Pariser did acknowledge the possibility that a visible effort on the bankruptcy issue this month by MoveOn could have "changed the calculation" of Democrats who voted for the bill in the Senate. But he reiterated that when faced with the choice of diverting resources from other key, winnable issues to one "which was doomed to fail," MoveOn would choose to be "pragmatic."

Pariser maintained that the group has not narrowed its focus since the presidential election: "We've always been a multi-issue organization and we always will be." But he says that members have indicated that they've been overwhelmed when asked to "track 16 different issues at once, so we've done our best to respect our members' attention and inboxes."

Julia Scott

San Francisco-based freelance journalist Julia Scott writes about water and energy issues for various publications. She also covers the environment for Bay Area News Group, a chain of newspapers in Northern California.

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