Net Group Tries to Click Democrats to Power
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY and JENNIFER 8. LEE
Published: November 18, 2003
WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 — When Wes Boyd walked into the New York offices of George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist, in September he was not sure why he had been invited.
Mr. Soros quickly made it clear. He and another philanthropist, Peter B. Lewis, wanted to donate millions of dollars to MoveOn.org, the Internet group that Mr. Boyd and his wife founded five years ago. For Mr. Soros, already a generous contributor to Democratic causes, it was another way to meet his goal of defeating President Bush next year.
"I like what they do and how they do it," Mr. Soros said. "They have been remarkably successful; I want to help them be even more successful."
The gift of up to $5 million instantly drew new attention to MoveOn.org, which has used the Internet to mobilize its 2.4 million members to sign online petitions, organize street demonstrations and donate money to run political advertisements.
Democrats have embraced it as a new model of political organization, while Republicans have attacked it, saying it is making an end run around campaign finance laws. On Monday, the Republican National Committee complained to campaign finance watchdog groups that Mr. Soros's grants were questionable. Ed Gillespie, the committee chairman, called on the likes of Common Cause to increase their scrutiny of groups that are raising millions from big contributors like Mr. Soros, saying the reaction by public interest groups is "not exactly the blowing of the whistle by the referees that we have seen in the past."
Since its founding in 1998 to protest the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, MoveOn.org has grown from its founders' anger into a bottom-up organization that has inserted itself into the political process in ways large and small, using just seven paid employees working out of their homes — only one of them in Washington. This year alone, the group has mobilized hundreds of thousands of Internet-savvy Americans to protest the invasion of Iraq, fight the Federal Communications Commission's stand on media deregulation and lobby against judicial nominees.
Some political scientists say that MoveOn.org may foreshadow the next evolutionary change in American politics, a move away from one-way tools of influence like television commercials and talk radio to interactive dialogue, offering everyday people a voice in a process that once seemed beyond their reach.
The group's style and tactics have even caught the eye of Al Gore, who called Mr. Boyd out of the blue several months ago seeking a forum for what became Mr. Gore's first major speech since he announced that he would not run for president. For that speech and another on Nov. 9, both of which were highly critical of the Bush administration's handing of the war against Iraq, MoveOn.org members packed the auditoriums.
"I would personally like to give the MoveOn.org tutorial class to a host of my Republican colleagues," said Larry Purpuro, the managing director of Rightclick Strategies and the coordinator of the Republican Party's e.GOP Internet project in the 2000 election.
For all of MoveOn.org's efforts, its record is mixed: Mr. Clinton was still impeached; the Bush administration invaded Iraq; Gov. Gray Davis of California was still recalled; Republicans still pushed through the Texas redistricting. Only one in three candidates it supported in the 2000 and 2002 elections was elected.
"I think it remains to be seen what their impact is," Mr. Gillespie said. "We're doing a lot of the same things, using the Internet, sending out e-mails, reaching out. But the challenge for us, and them, is to translate it into voter registration and voting. It's too early to tell."
But Mr. Boyd, 43, a software developer, and his wife, Joan Blades, 47, a lawyer, insisted that elective and policy victories were not necessarily the way to measure the success of a group like MoveOn.org. The intent of MoveOn, Mr. Boyd said, has always been to get more people involved so that alternative views can be heard.
"The reason this is happening is because our traditional system has come to a dead end," he said. "The model has led to an arms race in fund-raising and saturation of broadcast with very simplified messages, and it has led to broad cynicism."
Mr. Boyd and Ms. Blades, who together built a company that produced the famous flying-toaster computer screensavers, never imagined they would become so immersed in politics.
Yet drawn in by their anger over the impeachment, they turned the guest house of their hillside home in Berkeley, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, into the operational headquarters for MoveOn.org.
After the impeachment votes, the group formed a political action committee to defeat the House impeachment managers in the 2000 elections. After most of them won re-election, Mr. Boyd said, the couple intended to return to their previous lives, with a plan to design educational computer software.
"The year 2000 was such a big setback for us," Mr. Boyd said, alluding to Democrats who lost with MoveOn.org's support and the showdown in Florida that produced Mr. Bush's victory over Mr. Gore. "We made mistakes; we didn't mobilize our base. But it was so close that I thought the wheels would turn, the outcome would be fair, and democracy would work."
MoveOn.org organizers say they are filling a vacuum left by the Democratic leaders. The organization's e-mail list is larger than the Democratic Party's 1.5 million and the Dean campaign's 500,000, although the Republican Party e-mail list may be greater than the three of those combined.
Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, met Mr. Boyd in April to discuss MoveOn.org's strategies. The party has also expressed interest in buying MoveOn.org's e-mail list, an offer Mr. Boyd rejected as a violation of members' privacy.
In August, the Democrats essentially copied (with MoveOn.org's permission) a MoveOn.org e-mail message asking supporters for money to fight the Republicans in the Texas redistricting conflict.
Now MoveOn.org has decided to take on Mr. Bush on behalf of its members. In the three weeks since the MoveOn.org Voter Fund was begun, $5 million has been raised from 86,000 donors. The goal is $10 million.
But if MoveOn.org succeeds in helping unseat President Bush, it would mean an unfamiliar territory for an organization that has been defined more by what it is against than what it is for.
Some wonder if MoveOn.org would be able to make that transition. Jonah Seiger, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Policy, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University, said: "There is something to be said about fighting losing battles. At least you are keeping your constituency together."
"One of the things that killed the civil rights movement," Mr. Seiger added, "was getting what they asked for."
Hey, anything that tends to limit the reach of the left to people who fit between the brackets of (A)"I'm an economic loser and therefore favor income redistribution and a welfare state" and (B) "I have enough money for a computer, a telephone line, and internet service" is OK by me.
I am also heartened to see the Great Nanny's children focused on "Days of Rage," "Flash Mobs," "Town Hall Meetings" (actually 'Tweed Jacket and Nosering Meetings,' but I digress), and the like. I may send MoveOn a check - it's an investment in democracy.