EDITOR’S NOTE: There’s been a lot of comment about Al Gore’s antiwar, anti-Bush, “we were misled” speech delivered in New York last week. On Sunday the Washington Post, for example, wrote that if today’s Democratic presidential candidates listen to Gore, “they will all go off the cliff.” Others pointed to the former vice president’s hypocrisy in questioning the Bush administration’s reading of U.S. intelligence about Iraq’s weapons capability after reading the same intelligence the same way during his own years in office. Despite all that, there has been relatively little comment about the fact that Gore chose to give his speech under the sponsorship of the far-left antiwar Internet activist group Moveon.org. Moveon.org has a checkered past in Democratic politics, starting as a anti-impeachment organization and morphing into an antiwar crusade, with a few stops in between. Byron York profiled the group in NR’s July 28 issue.
As the 2000 presidential campaign began, a young computer programmer from Massachusetts named Zack Exley enjoyed 15 minutes of fame when he created a website called GWBush.com. The site, which Exley billed as a “parody,” featured a doctored photo of George W. Bush with what appeared to be cocaine on his upper lip and nose. It sold bumper stickers with sayings like “GWBush, Not a Crackhead Anymore!” and “GWBush, Born with a Silver Spoon Up His Nose.” And it featured a cartoon of Bush dancing with a bottle in his hand as kegs of beer bounced around the screen and “Louie, Louie” played in the background.
Exley and his site attracted relatively little attention until Bush himself took notice and told reporters, with evident disgust, “There’s a lot of garbage in politics, and obviously [Exley] is a garbage man.” That, of course, sent the press looking for what had made the candidate so angry. Then the Bush campaign gave Exley even more publicity when it filed a complaint against GWBush.com with the Federal Election Commission, asking that the site be subject to campaign-finance laws. Once that was over (Bush lost), the news coverage faded, and GWBush.com disappeared from view. These days, however, GWBush.com is still in business. Visitors can still watch the beer cartoon and buy bumper stickers that say, “Some people are just too stupid to be president.” Given all that has happened since the 2000 campaign, none of that might seem to merit serious discussion, except that in recent months Zack Exley has emerged as a serious player in Democratic politics. The creator of GWBush.com is now the organizing director for MoveOn.org, the web-based activist group that attracted worldwide attention in June when it held a “virtual primary” of Democratic presidential candidates.
The contest, won by former Vermont governor Howard Dean, brought waves of praise for MoveOn. “In the long run, MoveOn could be our Rush Limbaugh,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. The New York Times published an editorial — entitled “Happy Days Are Virtually Here Again” — in which it hailed MoveOn as a “glimpse into [the] politics of the future.”
But under close examination, MoveOn appears to be more a reflection of the politics of GWBush.com than a genuinely new, forward-looking political movement. The site is filled with the hostility toward the president that defines some segments of the Democratic party, and its recent success has some Democrats worried that it will give a new voice — and power — to the Bush-hating Left. “There are quite a few people in the party who really do want this election to be about their self-righteous knowledge of the perfidy of George W. Bush and the perfidy of the centrist Democrats who have caved in to him,” says one Democrat. “It’s just one long bellow of rage.” And right now, that rage is being heard through MoveOn.org.
Although it is now preoccupied with attacking George W. Bush, MoveOn actually got its start defending Bill Clinton. The group was founded by multimillionaire California software designers Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, whose company Berkeley Systems created the popular “flying toaster” screensaver. Boyd and Blades sold the company in 1997 and formed MoveOn the next year, in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal. The purpose of the new site was to save Clinton from impeachment.
On September 22, 1998, MoveOn made its first public statement, a press release headlined, “Disgusted Citizens Organize on the Internet: Urge Congress to Censure and Move On.” The release called MoveOn a “bipartisan group of concerned citizens” and said it was a “‘flash campaign,’ possible only through the organizing capabilities of the Internet.” Although MoveOn’s goal was to head off impeachment, it warned that if Congress began impeachment proceedings, “we will shift focus to highlighting this issue in the fall elections.”
Of course, Congress did begin impeachment proceedings, and MoveOn did indeed shift focus to the 1998 congressional elections. According to Federal Election Commission records, Boyd and Blades formed a MoveOn political action committee, MoveOnPAC, on October 23, 1998 — they put in $12,000 — and on October 26 the group announced a wide-ranging effort to defeat Republicans in the November elections.
But Republicans held both houses of Congress (although with some losses), and on December 19, the House voted to impeach Clinton. MoveOn changed course again, launching a “We Will Remember” campaign that would supposedly target impeachment leaders in the 2000 elections. MoveOn asked supporters to take the “We will act” pledge to elect candidates who “reject the politics of division and personal destruction.”
On June 30, 1999, the group announced that MoveOnPAC had raised more than $250,000 for the “We Will Remember” campaign. By the time the 2000 elections came around, MoveOn had targeted 30 House and Senate races across the country, making all of its contributions to Democratic candidates. According to FEC records, MoveOnPAC contributed about $2.4 million to Democratic campaigns.
Of course, Democrats again failed to win control of the House or Senate, and lost the presidency as well. So MoveOn moved away from its founding purpose. The group seized on gun control, campaign-finance reform, and, most energetically, opposing the policies of George W. Bush. In 2001, the ever-changing MoveOn mission statement was changed to read that “MoveOn.org is committed . . . to broadening participation to counter the influence of monied interests and partisan extremes.” MoveOn announced drives to oppose the president’s tax cut, his energy policy, and, most prominently, the war in Iraq. Its biggest hit was a remake of Lyndon Johnson’s infamous 1964 “Daisy Ad” updated to oppose the invasion of Iraq.
Now that the war is over, MoveOn is taking the lead in accusing the president of lying about the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The group recently bought a full-page ad in the New York Times with the headline MISLEADER superimposed over a picture of the president. The group has also started a petition drive asking Congress to create an independent commission to investigate the weapons issue.
With the 2004 campaigns getting underway, MoveOn coordinates closely with Democratic candidates around the country, building on its work from 2000 and 2002. For example, less than a week before the 2002 voting, Wes Boyd sent an e-mail to supporters asking them to send money to a long list of Democratic House and Senate candidates. “We talk to these campaigns every day, so they can adjust their last-minute spending,” Boyd said. It was essential, he declared, to avoid the reality of “right-wing domination,” “America’s worst nightmare.” (Neither Boyd nor Zack Exley responded to interview requests.)
Most of MoveOn’s funding comes from its members, but it also has close relationships with a number of left-wing foundations. For example, MoveOn has what is called a “fiscal sponsorship” relationship with an organization known as the San Francisco Foundation Community Initiative Funds. The foundation gives to a variety of liberal causes; in 2000, the group’s largest single expenditure, $162,000, went to fund opposition to Proposition 22, a measure that defined the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Proposition 22 won overwhelming support across California (except the San Francisco area). MoveOn also receives money from the Tides Foundation, a wealthy but little-known group that funds dozens of left-wing organizations; one of its large donations went to the Alliance for Justice, which is trying to stop a number of President Bush’s nominees to the federal courts.
Despite it all — its anti-Bush campaign, its contributions made only to Democrats, its ties with left-wing charities — MoveOn calls itself a “nonpartisan” organization. “MoveOn.org is an issue-oriented, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that gives people a voice in shaping the laws that affect their lives,” says its website. “MoveOn.org engages people in the civic process, using the Internet to democratically determine a nonpartisan agenda . . .”
Of course, no one believes that. Nevertheless, MoveOn is being credited with changing the face of American politics. There’s more than a little hype in that conclusion. Yes, the Internet has real potential as a fundraising tool. But so far MoveOn has not shown that it can expand its appeal beyond the hard-core, Bush-hating, antiwar Left. It can buy splashy advertisements and generate headlines. But there’s nothing to suggest that it can win elections.