Politics & Policy

Has MoveOn Betrayed the Democratic Party?

The meaning of the "General Betray Us" ad.

With its full-page “General Betray Us?” ad in the New York Times, MoveOn.org has once again put itself at the forefront of the antiwar movement. And if past patterns are any guide, a number of Democrats are embarrassed, and even angered, by MoveOn’s actions but are afraid to reveal the true extent of their feelings. MoveOn simply has too much fundraising clout — and a fear-inducing inclination to attack Democrats who stray from the MoveOn line — for many in the party to take it on.

Democratic leaders might be further embarrassed by a new email, headlined “Your dog can help end the war,” sent out by the leadership of MoveOn’s political team. The email asks members to attend a protest on Capitol Hill this morning preceding the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus. “Congress was fooled before by the White House’s ‘dog and pony show,” the appeal says. “We need to make sure they’re not fooled again. That’s why we’re hosting our own ‘Dog and Pony Show’ outside the Capitol Building right before Petraeus takes the stage for his testimony. We want to show Congress and the cameras that the American people aren’t buying the White House spin.”

“We’re bringing real ponies, signs and a big banner that reads, ‘CONGRESS: Don’t be fooled, AGAIN!’ Can you make it — and bring your dog if you have one?”

It seems unlikely that many top Democrats will be bringing pets. But the thing that should trouble party leaders is not that MoveOn is capable of silly stunts. It’s not even that MoveOn is capable of making slanderous comments about U.S. military officials. And it’s not that MoveOn is against the war in Iraq, which polls show many Americans believe was a mistake. Rather, MoveOn’s latest campaign is a continuation of a drive to oppose not just the action in Iraq, but the war on terror in general, and, in a larger sense, America’s use of military power in its own defense.

MoveOn was founded in 1998 by a husband-and-wife team of Berkeley, California software developers named Wes Boyd and Joan Blades. Its original mission was to oppose the Clinton impeachment. In 1999, after the impeachment trial ended with Clinton’s acquittal, MoveOn moved on to defeating Republicans who had favored impeachment. It mostly failed in that effort, and soon after the 2000 elections found itself without a clear political goal. All that changed on September 11, 2001.

At a time when polls showed a huge majority of Americans favoring military action against the terrorists who attacked New York and Washington, MoveOn put its energy into opposing the war in Afghanistan. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, Boyd and Blades circulated a petition that read, “Our leaders are under tremendous pressure to act in the aftermath of the terrible events of Sept. 11th. We the undersigned support justice, not escalating violence, which would only play into the terrorists’ hands.”

At the same time, an activist named Eli Pariser, recently graduated from college, circulated a petition of his own, calling on George W. Bush to use “moderation and restraint” in responding to 9/11 and “to use, wherever possible, international judicial institutions and international human rights law to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks, rather than the instruments of war, violence or destruction.” Boyd and Blades were so impressed by Pariser’s work that they hired him; he now is a top MoveOn official.

In recent years, MoveOn has sought to portray itself as the voice of what Pariser often calls the true American majority. For example, in the summer of 2004 MoveOn teamed with filmmaker Michael Moore to promote Moore’s movie Fahrenheit 9/11. The week before the film premiered, Pariser asked members to sign a pledge to see it during its first weekend; the point, he explained, was not simply to show support for Moore’s picture but to create the impression in the press that Fahrenheit 9/11 was the leading edge of a wave of anti-Bush anger sweeping the country. “We launched this campaign around Fahrenheit 9/11 because to the media, the pundits, and the politicians in power, the movie’s success will be seen as a cultural referendum on the Bush administration and the Iraq war,” Pariser told MoveOn members. “Together, we have an opportunity to knock this ball out of the park.”

Several leading Democrats, including then-Sen. Minority Leader Tom Daschle, showed up at the movie’s Washington premiere. But the connection with MoveOn worried other Democrats. “You’ve got to reject Michael Moore and the MoveOn crowd,” Al From, of the Democratic Leadership Council, remarked, calling MoveOn’s members “elites, people who sit in their basements all the time and play on their computers.” Other critics noticed that MoveOn attracted a membership that was mostly white, well-to-do, far-to-the-left, and not entirely representative of the Democratic party as a whole.

Now, with the “General Betray Us” campaign, those Democrats again face the question: Do they dare to cross MoveOn? Not long after the 2004 elections, Pariser famously said of Democrats, “Now it’s our party. We bought it, we own it, and we’re going to take it back.” The next few days could be crucial in determining whether he was right or not.

Byron York is a former White House correspondent for National Review.

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