After more than a decade spent railing against the Republican machine, MoveOn wants to move on —even if it means leaving some of its high-minded ideals behind.
Last week, the group’s members chose their top four priorities for the organization, winnowed down from a top-10 list culled from 50,000 suggestions. The decisions they weighed would determine in large part whether the group would become a friend or foe of the Obama administration, a player or a gadfly in progressive politics, a piece of the Democratic machine or a thorn in the party’s side.
What they chose: universal health care; economic recovery and job creation; building a green economy; stopping climate change; and end the war in Iraq.
What they didn’t: holding the Bush administration accountable; fighting for gay rights and LGBT equality; and reforming campaigns and elections.
MoveOn Executive Director Eli Pariser says that this happy alignment with Barack Obama’s agenda — and fortuitous absence of conflict with same — comes in part because “the people he’s listening to and the people we’re listening to are the same people.”
But it also may be a sign that MoveOn’s members want to move ahead – and that they’re willing to make some ideological sacrifices in exchange for real progress.
“Parties become much more pragmatic when they’ve won,” says Joe Trippi, who heads the media firm Trippi Multimedia, and who managed Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign and advised John Edwards in 2008.
“At least in the initial stages, they’re going to try to work together [with Obama] to see what parts of their agenda they can get through,” he says. And they recognize, he adds, that they will get more of their agenda passed if they don’t start trouble when they don’t need to.
If anything can be read into MoveOn’s silence on Rick Warren — the anti-gay-marriage pastor Obama has chosen to deliver his inaugural invocation — Trippi is correct.
But there is danger, some say, in allowing the majority to sacrifice purity for concrete gains, particularly if the minority strongly opposes the decision. Says John Hlinko, president and CEO of Grassroots Enterprise, a bi-partisan online advocacy and strategy firm: “If there’s a big enough faction — people can self organize now — it is not inconceivable that some faction could split off, some kind of extreme faction that thinks they’re the purer one.”
In addition, argues Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, founder of the liberal blog Daily Kos, MoveOn can actually help the administration by remaining visible and vocal rather than pulling its punches. He notes that the right won’t stop agitating for its agenda, so the left must continue to make demands in order to keep the momentum. “I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad thing for the administration,” he says. “A lot of times they can offer them political cover to do the right thing.”
Ultimately, says Hlinko, who worked with MoveOn founders Wes Boyd and Joan Blades in organization’s early days, the new administration will probably get a fair amount of latitude from the group — but not an infinite supply: “I think how they react will depend on how many mistakes there are versus how many victories. At the end of a year, if there’s a lot more Rick Warren than getting out of Iraq, we’ll have to see.”
In the meantime, MoveOn won’t exactly be sitting on its hands. Pariser says he envisions the group “creating the political space for Obama to step into” by turning the organization’s attention toward the voters and the Capitol. He sees MoveOn working to ensure that members of Congress who are inclined to back the president’s agenda have their districts behind them — and that those who refuse to fall in line feel the full force of their constituents’ wrath.
The goal, says Pariser, is to “make sure Congress is squeezed between a progressive president and a progressive constituency.”
Or, as Trippi puts it, members of Congress who stand in the way of Obama’s program “are going to find themselves between Barack and a hard place.”
This kind of work won’t necessarily generate the kind of buzz – good or bad – that the group’s “General Betray Us” ad garnered. But while MoveOn has thrived on “big, galvanizing teachable moments,” such as the impeachment or the war in Iraq, says Hlinko, the organization can also likely afford to fly under the radar for a while.
Unlike some advocacy organizations that need to generate conflict in order to stoke their supporters and raise money, MoveOn has remained “lean and mean,” with a small paid staff and little overhead, he notes.
“What that means,” says Hlinko, “is they can afford, I would think, not to have a big battle. If there were a couple of hundred people [on staff], they might need to pick a fight” in order to survive.
For his part, Pariser says he will do what his members want, no matter which way it takes the organization or what the implications are for its future. “I believe the fact that we hear something from all over the place at the same time means it probably is what we should do with the country,” he says. “I maybe drank the Kool Aid in civics class a little too much, but I think if you put your faith in that, you really don’t go wrong. People gravitate very quickly to the big things that are at the core of their problems.”
“It also makes our jobs easier,” he adds, “because we just do what we’re told.”