Today the book–literally–on the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy is unveiled. National Review’s Byron York is author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down the President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time. As you can imagine, he’s got a lot of George Soros, some Al Franken and Michael Moore, but even more so, the strategic planners behind MoveOn, America Coming Together, and that oh-so-riveting Air America. Don’t let the ZZZZ Factor of Air America fool you. As Byron writes, “Today’s Left is bigger and better funded than conservatives were decades ago, and though Democrats did not win in 2004, this left-wing movement–and the foundation of new institutions on which it rests–seems poised to exert even more influence in coming campaigns.” “[B]y 2008,” he writes, “they will be even better organized–and far stronger.”
NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez asked her colleague a few Matt Lauer-style hard-hitting questions about his new book. Byron York notes, though, that no reading of this Q&A is complete without buying the book.
National Review Online: Byron, are you trying to distract the American people from your husband’s impending impeachment or laying the fundraising groundwork for your run for Senate? Why do you need to demonize the Left with a conspiracy label?
Byron York: While conservatives were perhaps paying too little attention, the phrase “Vast Left Wing Conspiracy” has become a kind of shorthand on the Left for the biggest, richest, and most focused political movement in generations. MoveOn.org, George Soros, the 527 groups, Michael Moore, Al Franken and Air America, John Podesta’s Center for American Progress, and other individuals and organizations are self-consciously building a new political infrastructure–a well-funded message machine which they plan to use to inject new ideas into the national conversation, attack enemies, and spark political action. Unlike the conservative movement, which grew up over decades, they are trying to do it all virtually instantly–and in many ways, they have succeeded. The book is their story.
As for the specific phrase–a variation on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s famous charge that there was a “vast right wing conspiracy” against Bill Clinton–here’s what Franken said last month about his work with Air America radio: “I think it’s a counterpoint to [the Right] and to the administration and to just the whole right-wing echo machine. We’re trying to just be part of this vast left wing conspiracy…” As another example, at last year’s Democratic convention in Boston, a group of young activists put on a program called “Building the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy.” And as far back as 2001, the liberal online magazine Slate published an article entitled, “Wanted: A Vast Left Wing Conspiracy.” There are plenty of other examples to show that the Left actually kind of likes the phrase.
That’s not really surprising. Remember back in 1998, when Mrs. Clinton first used “vast right wing conspiracy”? Conservatives loved it. You couldn’t go to a party without someone saying, “Well, it looks like the whole conspiracy is here.” Well, the left-wing variation is being heard more and more these days.
NRO: Is it a problem for the Left that MoveOn basically had no purpose, as you tell their tale, pre-9/11? That so much of the Left’s new organization is based on being antiwar? And some of it, specifically against the war in Afghanistan, which Americans were generally united behind?
York: MoveOn’s problem was that it was founded for a very specific purpose–to oppose the Clinton impeachment–and then it could not move on itself. After Clinton was impeached, MoveOn tried to punish the impeachers, and they hung on to that mission so long that, after the 2000 election, they seemed like the last Japanese soldiers on the island. But then they learned how to transform themselves. After September 11, they suddenly found a new purpose, becoming in essence an antiwar organization. First they opposed the war in Afghanistan, which, as you say, had nearly universal American support, and then they opposed the war in Iraq when they helped create the group Win Without War. Later, they became an anti-Bush campaign ad organization. Now, they’re transforming themselves again, joining the fight to filibuster Bush judicial nominees and oppose Social Security reform. When that no longer works, they’ll do something else.
The thing to remember about MoveOn is that even though it has at times had a large membership–sometimes topping 2.5 million–its essentially radical nature makes it unlikely to expand its appeal beyond the hard-core Democratic base. Remember that nearly 60 million people voted for John Kerry. Some part of that group, perhaps 25 percent, could be called the truest, bluest, anti-Bush faction. That’s nearly 15 million people. And inside that 15 million people, there was MoveOn. For all the attention it received, and all its claims to represent the “true majority” of the American people, MoveOn simply never expanded beyond the confines of the true believers.
NRO: A related question: America Coming Together and the like were sorta overconfident–their attitude seemed to be, if you said you were the majority, the majority would come. They were speaking to other left-wing activists’ e-mail lists and the like, not reaching out to new people. Are these groups too out there to really drive electoral victories to the Democrats?
York: In the book, I make a distinction between the emotional wing of the movement–MoveOn, Michael Moore, and others–and the professional wing, which includes America Coming Together and the Center for American Progress. The emotional wing is given to outbursts–like MoveOn’s antiwar ads or Moore’s statement that he couldn’t understand why the September 11 terrorists attacked New York City, since so many New Yorkers had voted for Al Gore–that confine them to the margins. But the professionals are more disciplined, and in the future they will be working hard to make their message seem more mainstream. They are smart and extremely well-funded, and, depending on the mistakes made by Republicans in the future, they could well win in years to come–because, as the book shows, the extraordinary infrastructure they have built makes them a political force to be reckoned with.
NRO: What do you expect the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy to look like come 2008? How key is it that the likes of Barack Obama are lending them their creds?
York: What is perhaps most remarkable about the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy is how quickly the activists built their new organizations–in about 18 months. Given more time, they will build more. In the conclusion of the book I discuss a scenario in which the war on terror declines in public urgency, Republicans make mistakes borne of overconfidence and being too long in power, and circumstances begin to favor Democrats. It could certainly happen, and Hillary Rodham Clinton is positioning herself for just such a situation. On the other hand, in the book I also identify a number of problems that kept the Left from winning in 2004 and could haunt them against next time. Any group that counts among its core constituents MoveOn (with whom Obama teamed up recently in the drive to support Democratic filibuster leader Sen. Robert Byrd) and Michael Moore will always be capable of defeating itself, no matter what Republicans do.
NRO: You’ve described the Left’s organizations as angry and desperate during the last election–is that why they lost? If so, can they come to grips with that or do they remain too angry?
York: In the book, I write that the emotional wing of the movement was angry–at the Clinton impeachment, at the Florida recount, and at virtually everything George W. Bush did. The professional wing, on the other hand, became desperate–they found themselves totally out of power after the 2002 elections and facing a post-McCain Feingold world in which their zillionaire donors could no longer give to the Democratic party. Groups like America Coming Together–founded to allow contributors like Soros and a few of his associates to give millions of dollars–were the direct response to that.
But the real reason the new activists on the Left lost in 2004 was that their organizations were essentially closed loops–self-contained groups that spoke mostly to each other. My book details instances in which the activists seemed to believe they were reaching out far beyond their own group–to a new American majority–when in fact they were not. Worse for them, their closed loops overlapped: people who belonged to MoveOn listened to Air America and watched Fahrenheit 9/11 and contributed to America Coming Together. They weren’t really reaching out to anybody.
NRO: Michael Moore’s movie bombed in the heartland? How did he get away with claiming otherwise, basically writing false headlines in news accounts?
York: He got away with it because the press did not question what he was saying. When Fahrenheit 9/11 premiered, Moore said it was “the number-one movie in every single red state in America” and went on, for weeks afterward, to claim that the movie represented a wave of anti-Bush feelings all across the country. His claims went mostly unchallenged in the press. What I found in researching my book–I came across a source in Hollywood with access to the movie industry’s sophisticated audience measurement statistics–was that Moore’s claims were simply not true. Using previously unpublished statistical evidence, I show that in fact, Fahrenheit 9/11 did very well only in a few deep-blue areas–and also in Canada, where ticket sales counted toward the film’s North American gross. Virtually everywhere else, the movie underperformed significantly.
NRO: Does the VLWC consider campaign-finance laws a joke? Will that come back to haunt people like Eliot Spitzer who, as you note, has pretty publicly laughed at them?
York: I think they felt that the laws were really designed to curb the excesses of rich Republicans, and thus really didn’t apply to them. At one point in the 2003-2004 election cycle, George Soros wrote that, even after McCain-Feingold, when the Bush campaign was collecting only legal, limited contributions, corporations continued to “[buy] the same level of access and influence for their corporate interests that they previously obtained” before campaign finance reform. Soros continued: “I don’t seek such influence. My contributions are made in what I believe to be the common interest.” That was what it boiled down to: Soros–who before 2004 was one of the biggest champions of campaign-finance reform–believed his mega-contributions were good because he had good motives, and even legal, limited contributions to Bush were bad because corporations had selfish motives. With that kind of worldview, why would one take the spirit of the campaign-finance laws too seriously?
NRO: How does the Right’s well-oiled machinery components compare to the Left’s now?
York: When it comes to assessing each other’s power and influence, the Right and Left seem to live in parallel universes. The Left points to Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio in general, to Fox News, to the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, to the Scaife Foundation, and other conservative institutions, and sees an all-powerful machine. The Right, on the other hand, is baffled that a group of people with ready access to the New York Times, parts of the big broadcast television networks, the Pew Foundations, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, the Brookings Institution, and virtually all of academia could feel so outgunned. And yet they do. In fact, in creating the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, liberal activists have been quite consciously trying to create their own version of what they see as the right-wing “noise machine” or “attack machine.”
Right now, I would say that while, in some of the big media, conservative ideas are sometimes ignored, or more often treated as phenomenon to be studied like an anthropologist might study the habits of a newly discovered tribe, conservatives are better able to express and explain their ideas than they have ever been. It is hard for conservatives to argue, as they could at times in the past, that they cannot get their ideas before the public. But when it comes to political machinery, the Right needs to pay attention to what the Left is doing. It was the Left, for example, that revolutionized campaigning with 527 groups; Democratic-supporting 527s spent an astonishing $230 million on the last presidential race, which was two-and-a-half times what Republican-supporting 527s spent.
NRO: Were you surprised so many key organizers of the VLWC talked with you as much as they did?
York: No, I wasn’t surprised. Even though the book is quite critical of their work, the one thing I tried to do throughout was to take them and their organizations seriously. I didn’t write the book to trash them or call them names. I wrote it to figure out what they are doing. One of the themes I hope readers will draw from the book is that, whatever the excesses of the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, conservatives and Republicans should take it seriously.