Depending on who you ask, the organization MoveOn.org is a potent advocate for progressive political ideas, a divisive partisan protest group or an ineffectual lobby whose knack for getting media attention is far greater than its influence on Capitol Hill. Christopher Hayes, Washington editor of The Nation, wrote about the group on the eve of its 10th birthday.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Depending on whom you ask, the organization MoveOn.org is a potent advocate for progressive political ideas, a divisive partisan protest group or an ineffectual lobby whose knack for getting media attention and raising money is far greater than its influence on Capitol Hill.
MoveOn turns 10 this year, and with membership rolls in the millions, it’s worth asking what does it want, other than to fill up your inbox with email petitions and requests for donations?
Christopher Hayes is Washington editor of The Nation and he wrote about the group in the current issue of the magazine. Chris, welcome back to OTM. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Thanks for having me, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: I want to begin at the beginning of MoveOn.org because its genesis is not in a particularly divisive political issue.
CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Yeah, basically what happened was in the fall of 1998, as the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton ramped up, a couple in Berkeley, California, by the name of Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, who ran a software company, put up a website at the URL MoveOn.org basically with a one-sentence petition, saying, Congress should censure the President and move on to the pressing issues facing the country.
And they sent that out to a few dozen friends of theirs, and before they knew it, there were 100,000 signatories. So they really captured the Zeitgeist, but they weren't calling for, you know, nationalizing the steel industry or creating a - BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] CHRISTOPHER HAYES: - Department of Peace or anything. You know, they were basically just saying something that, at the time, if you go back and look at the polls, a majority of American people agreed with. BOB GARFIELD: MoveOn.org in the last five years has been closely associated with the antiwar movement. How did it get from point A to point B? CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Well, it kind of wandered a little bit in the wilderness between its founding in 1998 and around 2002, when the drumbeat for war in Iraq started. And in some ways, the drumbeat really kind of gave new life to the organization.
There were a lot of people around that time, people who, similarly to Joan Blades and Wes Boyd back in 1998, didn't consider themselves to be activists, but all of a sudden saw the country veering in a direction and towards a war that they felt was profoundly wrong, and MoveOn provided this tremendous outlet for those kinds of people.
And the largest petition they sent was a petition right before the war called Let the Inspections Work, which in some ways kind of echoes the pragmatism of that initial petition, Censure and Move On. They weren't saying, no blood for oil. They weren't saying, renounce imperial conquest. They were saying, let the inspections work. It was this very kind of middle-road path that they took. BOB GARFIELD: To the extent that MoveOn was able to be, you know, a relatively middle-of-the-road organization, it lost some of its credibility when General David Petraeus came to Capitol Hill to testify in support of the so-called “surge” and MoveOn paid for an ad with the headline General Betray Us, and all hell broke loose. Tell us about that. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Yeah, the headline was actually General Petraeus – his name – or General Betray Us. That was in large-point font, and then beneath that was an argument, essentially making the case that strategy and the vision for the war are set by the president, and George Bush essentially was trying to pawn off a policy decision onto this decorated and admired general.
And because the general had sort of entered the political fray to sell a White House policy, they were questioning just to what extent he was actually being faithful to the facts on the ground.
There was a tremendously concerted effort on the part of conservatives to attract as much attention as possible to this. Indeed, when General Petraeus was actually before the committee, before they got into anything saying, you know, let's talk about conditions in Iraq, they started fulminating against the outrageous attacks on the good general by MoveOn.org and waved the full-page ad around like a bloody shirt.
The Democratic politicians found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to spend political capital defending a group that had done something completely independent of them. And there’s still a lot of anger about how that whole thing went down. BOB GARFIELD: In your piece, you interestingly observe that MoveOn has as lot of email addresses and has had a lot of petitions signed, but the relative ease with which it can do that has actually devalued the impact. That phenomenon, among others, has made people question MoveOn on the basis of what part of your agenda have you actually accomplished with the Democratic [LAUGHS] Congress in Washington? The answer is, not a whole lot of that agenda, correct? CHRISTOPHER HAYES: You know, if you zoom out broadly enough, you can say, in some senses, the center of the political debate has moved exactly in MoveOn’s direction. Things that were to the left of the majority of Americans – for instance, opposition to the war, in support of a timeline for withdrawal, cap and trade, national health care – all these things that are pillars of the MoveOn platform have now become pillars of the Democratic Party and could very well be pillars of the actual government of the United States.
So, broadly enough construed, MoveOn has, I think, contributed to moving the debate in their direction on politics. More narrowly construed, they have had a very difficult time getting the Democratic Congress to deliver on some of the things that they were promising when they were elected in 2006. BOB GARFIELD: The notion of a Democratic White House and a Democratic Congress raises another interesting question about the future of this organization. If the Democrats control both the White House and the Congress, what is there for MoveOn to push back against? Will it use the same kind of tools and tactics against sitting Democrats that it has used against the White House? CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Well, you asked the $64,000 question, and it’s a question that not just MoveOn is facing but the entire center left and the progressive infrastructure that has built up in these years of opposition, including, even though it’s 150 years old, including my magazine. [LAUGHS]
I mean, everybody is wondering about where to strike the proper balance between giving space and recognizing that perfect could be the enemy of good when trying to get legislation passed, and where to demand accountability and principle.
There are some people who feel they've been too cozy with the Democratic leadership and have erred on the side of not fighting them, in a sense, going after Republicans.
But once the final Republican obstacle towards an agenda is removed, in the person of George W. Bush, Democrats will still need 60 votes in the Senate, but it becomes much more difficult to make the case that it’s the Republicans blocking things.
And I think you’re going to see more of their members become frustrated if some of the things that MoveOn’s been pushing for aren't delivered by their ostensible allies in the Democratic Party. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Chris. Thank you very much. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Christopher Hayes is the Washington editor of The Nation Magazine. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]