Posts by Chris Nolan

DNC Crossroads: To Dean, or Not to Dean

January 26, 2005

Chris Nolan

There is perhaps no better snapshot of the Democratic Party's current dilemma than the spontaneous caution that erupted on the sidelines during the standing ovation given former presidential candidate Howard Dean at the Western Regional Conference of the Democratic National Committee last Saturday.

As the six or seven hundred people in the crowd got to their feet for Dean, the last speaker of a long, sometimes dry day of exchanges, two aides working for rival campaigns blurted out an emphatic warning: "They don't vote!"

"And you're hearing that from two campaigns!" added one. The same could easily be said of the on-line kibitzing about this tiny but important race. It's a measure of interest, but it's not what counts.

Votes for chairman will be cast not by the audience but by the 40-some DNC committee members who were sitting at the front of the Sacramento, Calif. hotel ballroom listening to the seven men who hope to lead the party. The much larger audience of concerned Democrats sitting behind them cheering so enthusiastically for Dean can lobby, but they won't decide. Still, the tension between what energized voters – on and off-line -- want and what the party's leadership decides is best is at the party's restive heart.

A look around the Western Caucus, which brings together delegates from Alaska, American Somoa, Arizona, California, Colorado, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, is also a good reminder for tech-savvy Democrats anxious for the party to adopt the latest and greatest in on-line organizing. For all the talk about wikis, meetups, blogs and Internet-based fundraising, tech leaves many of the party regulars cold. For them, politics is still about people, not plugs.

So the candidates for the DNC chairmanship are relying, as all political parties have for years, on pressing the flesh at a series of party meetings held to let some of the 447 people who run Democratic state organizations, hold elected office or work for labor unions, to start evaluating their choices for chairman. A similar regional caucus will meet next weekend in New York with the final vote scheduled for Feb. 12.

Tech-savvy campaigning isn't front and center in this race, but it is playing a role. Dean's Internet-reliant presidential effort makes the topic impossible to ignore. But so, too, does the recognition that things aren’t working as they should. And they suspect a better use of tech tools might help them. Details are scarce but, to a man – and they were all men -- speakers at Saturday's meeting talked about strengthening state organizations with money and technological innovations from a more receptive, less controlling Washington office.

Less easily articulated by the candidates but clear to anyone watching the crowd – Democrats also want someone who can speak to voters and separate their goals and ambitions from those of the Republicans. The problem is that there is no one man running in this race who can do all those things. Each of the candidates for the chairmanship represent in his own way the unresolved tensions within the Democratic Party. That makes the choice -- between Dean, long-time Democratic organizer Donnie Fowler, former Ohio Party Chair David Leland, New Democratic Network CEO Simon Rosenberg, former Indiana Congressmen Tim Roemer and Martin Frost and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb -- difficult as well as crucial.

"They're all qualified," says Bob Mulholland, campaign advisor to the California Democratic Party. And in an odd twist, the ability to speak tech – to talk to and about the on-line world with some fluency -- is becoming the middle ground. Mullholland, who runs his own blog about California politics, clearly knows this. So do others in the room, even if they did leave their lap-tops at home.

Talking the Talk, But Walking the Walk?

But since not everyone knows the lingo, the possibilities or the potential, candidates are long on general ideas that will better implement technology and short on specifics. There's no talk about issue-based wiki discussions or regional meet-ups. Instead, there are promises from Dean to put state party organizers on the party payroll and references to Democracy for America and how it's already up and running. There's talk by Fowler about energizing the netroots and re-locating the DNC's offices outside Washington and giving state leaders more authority since the net frees them to work in different places. Frost's web site – an old fashioned static site – talks about the party's need to better co-ordinate Internet-based fundraising combined with talk about making Washington more responsive to the states, fiscally and otherwise. And in the highest form or flattery, Rosenberg is imitating Dean's presidential campaign, demonstrating how well he understands the on-line world and this new style of campaigning by aggressively courting the blogosphere's leaders at DailyKos.com and MyDD.com. (PDF Contributing Editor Matt Stoller has been hired to blog Rosenberg's campaign).

Dean, of course, leads the pack by virtue of his name recognition and ability to stir a crowd as well as DFA's fundraising, email list (the organization claims 700,000 names) and organizing. He brought Democrats to tech, but Dean might not be the best choice for managing the nuts and bolts of leading the party. His presidential effort was sloppy. And his reputation as an anti-war liberal who endorsed civic unions for same-sex couples has party moderates wary. That's on top of their concerns that he'll put his presidential ambitions first.

More conservative candidates include former Congressman Martin Frost, a Texan, and Tim Roemer, a member of the 9/11 Commission. Roemer and Frost are the party establishment's candidates, men who have experience working in and with Congress, who understand how the Washington press corps works and who don’t want – at least not obviously – to be president. Call them Corporate Democrats; they're slick, experienced, smartly staffed and have skill at pouring oil on troubled waters. But, creatures of Washington, how are interested are they – really – in helping state organizations? And what about corralling all this on-line activity? Do they, as they say in Silicon Valley "get it."

When it comes to tech – and what it should do – probably not. A web presence for the chairmanship race is clearly considered an "extra" with this part of the party. Webb, Roemer and Leland don’t have web sites. And Roemer's made an pretty typical on-line mistake: While he has a site, he's not promoting it or linking from is, so Roemer’s on-line presence (just try Googling his name) is largely filled by pro-Dean and Rosenberg activists' harping against him. Frost's site, while polished, is a traditional static site that doesn't accept comments. There's an email drop but no way to reach staffers.

Walking down the middle of this minefield--clearly hoping to capitalize on those who are tech-savvy but unsure about Dean--Fowler and Rosenberg are trying to leverage the support they both have among newly politicized and tech-rich Democrats. As the only two candidates in the race who have bought Google ads that draw readers – searching for their rivals – to their sites, they're miles ahead of the other guys. Their sites have blogs and encourage visitors to lobby their state Democratic representative on their behalf. It's part and parcel of their calculated appeal to Democrats, particularly party newcomers, who are frustrated by consultants and top-down management favored by the party's corporate side.

But both men also speak the language of Beltway insiders. Fowler's father Don ran the DNC during the Clinton administration and he has worked as the Democratic coordinator for TechNet, a Silicon Valley lobbying group that organizes high tech's Washington efforts. Rosenberg, who has a sharp eye for political talent, started the New Democratic Network to appeal to tech entrepreneurs. His candidacy is strongly backed by venture capitalist Andy Rappaport and his wife, Deborah, generous party supporters who plowed $100,000 to NDN last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But even between the tech-savvy, there are no slam dunks. And there's no party leader – no sitting president – to make the final call. Democrats must decide among themselves for themselves.

"The question becomes do we want a technician or a spokesman?" asks Martin J. Dunleavy, head of the National Democratic Ethnic Leadership Council, a "527" fundraising organization formed to appeal white ethnic groups, mostly Catholic "If we want a technician, it's going to be Fowler. If we want a spokesman, it's going to be Dean," says Dunleavy who was working the room in Sacramento on Fowler's behalf "partly" because of his relationship with his father.

And if Dean Loses?

But there's another question no one really wants to answer – not yet, anyway. And for the tech-savvy and those not-so-advanced who heartily cheered Dean on in Sacramento the chairmanship contest presents an interesting dilemma. What happens if Dean doesn’t become head of the DNC? What happens to all those Democrats who got to their feet as he ended his speech? What happens to Democracy for America, his organizing and fundraising arm? It won't stop, Dean promises.

"If I'm not the DNC Chairman, we will continue to run Democracy for America. We will continue to fund grassroots campaigns," he told the audience Saturday.

That raises another, equally important questions, what will the DNC do if Dean's not chairman? If state-level leaders can draw on more than one piggybank for campaign help, as Dean is drawing on MoveOn.org's help for the chairmanship race, doesn't that weaken the DNC's authority? Does Dean's dynamism pull single women, gays and staunch – and rich -- liberals to his organization at the expense of a party led by less dynamic party leaders like Frost or Rosenberg? After all, funding campaigns is one of the party's main jobs. Many of those who went through this last election cycle are worried about burning their supporters with too many requests. Besides, there are limits on how political action committees like DFA can coordinate with the DNC. And what about the carping that's sure to erupt from the partisan blogger supporting Dean or Rosenberg? Do they throw their support to Dean and their invectives to the traditional DNC?

"They got money. They'll be fine," says a Dean activist. Perhaps. But in an age when anyone with a cause can get on the Internet and raise money, Dean's celebrity status, particularly among the MoveOn.org and other cash-generating lefty cause factories isn't to be taken lightly. He's getting the standing ovations. No one else is.

When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It?

That's certainly one reason that there's been some – now muted – talk of a joint chairmanship, a way to split the top job so the party gets the best of both worlds. For the tech savvy – even for those who only dimly see the potential tech can offer – this might be the best platform for compromise. That's what – in spite of their insistence to the contrary -- Fowler and Rosenberg's strategies in this small-scale campaign demonstrate very well.

Democratic governors suggested splitting the job earlier this year but it was, according to one candidate for chairman, shot down by the unions who want a unified party run by one person they can credit or, of course, blame. And unions, for now, call many of the shots in the party Dean's aides also say they have flatly turned down the idea of a split chairmanship, something last done during Clinton's presidency. Of all the candidates they are best prepared – because of their established web presence with DFA – to carry their own message forward.

But the need to improve Democrat's tech savvy – as Fowler and Rosenberg are both stressing – means it makes more sense to split the job. And politics is, above all, a game of never-say-never. Particularly since none of the seven candidates to run the DNC has yet nailed an major endorsement from say, Hillary Clinton, her husband or even House and Senate minority leaders Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid.

That's why it's worth shaking up the mix. Don't look at the race as a winner-take-all contest. Frost and Dean probably won't split the job; they're too seasoned. But Frost – all but unknown to tech folks – could do worse than to have Fowler as his logistical co-chair. Rosenberg's inside-the-beltway skill at maneuvering among the party's top corporate donors could be an asset to Dean. His tech-savvy would help Frost. Dean's tech-savvy celebrity would be balanced by Fowler's ability to talk – through his father and his own connections – to the party establishment.

Their age and lack of experience in elected office makes Fowler and Rosenberg easy choices for the number two job. Both are adamant about their desire for the top slot and the competition between them is spirited. As it should be; that's just smart campaigning. But, in many respects, this race is just getting started. Things can change and change fast with the right endorsement, a meeting of minds, strategies and ambitions.

And, as California's Mulholland observed at the end of Saturday's meeting, there's no reason to run the losing candidates out of town. A last minute package of assigned roles to lead the party might well be on the horizon as the Feb. 12 meeting draws closer. Predicts Mulholland: "Whoever wins is going to be hiring some of the people on that stage."

Stand-alone journalist Chris Nolan runs "Politics From Left to Right," a San Francisco-based political site that focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and the differences between East Coast insiders and West Coast influencers.

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MoveOn.org: No Longer a Start-up or an Upstart (Part II)

December 23, 2004

Chris Nolan

MoveOn’s metamorphosis from an organization interested in Internet-based innovative processes and community-building efforts into a business-as-usual advertising focus group and fundraising machine is striking. Co-founder Joan Blades, of course, suggested it wasn't that much of a departure for the group. MoveOn members got to decide which ads they liked, said Blades, referring to the "Bush in 30 Seconds" campaign where members were asked to vote for the best spot to run during the Super Bowl.

"It's great to get people outside the Beltway engaged," said Blades, who decried the use of TV advertising in political campaigns. "I think it's exciting to have real people making ads. Getting regular citizens involved in the democratic process makes democracy more robust." Zimmerman also stressed the instant feedback MoveOn was able to get from its on-line members. But he described a process that will sound familiar to anyone ever involved in a traditional campaign: A script would be produced on Monday. Tuesday it would be up for review on the MoveOn site. Wednesday MoveOn would ask for financial support. "Thursday, we made it. Friday it was on the air," said Zimmerman. "That's not how a typical campaign works."

No, it's not. Focus group testing usually slows the process down by at least a day. MoveOn members weren't asked to comment on the scripts. Script changes weren't made because of member comments or reviews, said Zimmerman. In fact, after a while, the whole thing ran rather well – perhaps too well -- because Zimmerman and MoveOn knew their audience. "We had a sense of what the member wanted,'' Zimmerman acknowledges. "The capability of going to members and raising money was extraordinary," he says.

Old Whines in New Bottles

Well, you know what they say about things being too good to be true. "People started confusing the donors as being representative of the voters," says the campaign vet. The whole process raises questions about the ads effectiveness. If donors – true believers with money to spare, many of them new to politics – were picking the ads, isn't there a chance these same ads will be unappealing, perhaps even offensive, to the less passionate, the swing voters the party needed to attract? Given the tenor of some of the ads MoveOn's grassroots members made – one film that was nominated compared Bush to Hitler and provided Bush with an easy out when it came to denouncing campaigns run on his behalf – as well as the election's outcome, the answer is probably "yes."

That self-affirming approach – asking a question when you know the answer, the touchy feely stuff that's so easy to mock in "progressive" politics -- seems to be continuing despite Kerry's, and by extension, MoveOn's defeat. In post-election house parties held the Sunday before Thanksgiving, 16,000 participating MoveOn members devised – by voting face-to-face and then reporting their tallies online to the organization -- a strikingly uniform agenda. MoveOn members thought the organization should focus primarily on voter reform. That's code for saying there was fraud in Florida or Ohio. They also suggested that the organization make "media reform" one of its goals and that it articulate what Blades described as a "compelling 'progressive' message." Those are worthy challenges, but they're not, as writer Marc Cooper has pointed out, political goals as much as they are strategic forays. And they're not actions that make Democrats – particularly the party's most liberal wing – look at what they're doing or not doing to attract votes.

It's apparent after an hour of conversation with Blades that she doesn't understand how different her political views are even from mainstream Democrats. "Progressive is not the Liberal wing of the Democratic Party," she said. "I'm saying Progressive means 'progress.'" But progress for whom? A quick – and admittedly unscientific -- check of house party locales shows them concentrated in states that supported Democratic nominee John Kerry or in cities or college towns in Bush states, communities where Democrats did well during the election. "It's true, we don't have as many people in the Red States," she said. If MoveOn is talking across party lines – as Blades says members want to do – it's got a funny way of soliciting different points of view.

Still, Blades insisted, harking back to the organization's more idealistic roots, the gatherings were national in scope and universally successful. "Our job is to listen to our members and help them engage in the political process as best they can," she said. "I used to think the object was to win. I'm beginning to see there's more to it than that."

Listening, But Not Hearing?

Blades said she's proudest of the work MoveOn did on the ground on Election Day for an effort it dubbed "Leave No Voter Behind." "The most important thing we did this election season, as far as I'm concerned, was our field work," she volunteered over breakfast. "We had hundreds of thousands of people in the streets." But John Kerry, the candidate for whom MoveOn was organizing, didn't win. How is that a success? "Beg your pardon?" Blades shoots back, leaning a bit over her waffles and counting off turnout figures. "You call that 'not working?' I call that awesome."

"Leave No Voter Behind" has come in for criticism from poll workers who were given the wrong lists, sent to the wrong places or simply left unsupervised. The glitches that did exist weren't MoveOn's fault, said Blades. "We were definitely disappointed in the quality of information we were given," she said. "We do our best to play well with others – others are less committed to the process." She made clear that she's referring to America Coming Together, ACT, the organization set-up to run the Democrats' get-out-the-vote efforts, which had error-ridden databases. "It's not rocket science," said Blades, the software veteran animated by the technical challenge. "Not for us."

But it's far from clear that the $5 million MoveOn poured into voter outreach was truly money well spent. And again the problem appears to be in the mode of listening—or not listening—done by the group’s leadership. "They almost lost me initially, because they just couldn't get organized on the ground in Seattle and there was no good way to contact them, except going through the black hole of their national website," said Carolyn McConnell, who volunteered for MoveOn in her Seattle neighborhood. McConnell is – like many people who worked the polls on Election Day – reluctant to criticize MoveOn's intentions, which she still sees as potentially very effective. "I only got pulled back in because one woman in my neighborhood took major organizing on herself. And then after the election, I had very little way of continuing to connect with the MoveOn community in Seattle and my neighborhood," she said.

Similar complaints are being echoed in on-line forums – not MoveOn's of course – around the web. "MoveOn seems to me to be sort of perfect example of how NOT to get people involved in politics," one DailyKos member recently wrote. That member’s message described, nearly in lock step, the same process that the organization's main political consultant, Bill Zimmerman, outlined for the making of its ads. "What MoveOn wants, it seems to me, is for people to send them money, and sign online petitions. MoveOn wants to WRITE the petitions, and MoveOn wants to decide WHO gets the money. It's not democratic. Beyond saying, "Yes, I'll sign", or, "Where should I send the money?" MoveOn doesn't want any member participation."

Communications problems – experienced by almost anyone who wants to approach the organization – are widespread. "You can't get through - or at least I can't, and I bet most average joes can't either. This is odd, because MoveOn managed to rake in shitloads of money from average joes before the election. You would think they'd be responsive to joe when he tried to contact them," the Kos member complained.

This absence of back-and-forth is perhaps MoveOn's most striking characteristic, even for those who deal with Boyd and Blades all the time. "It's kind of like dealing with an Eight-Ball: Many questions are asked," said a consultant who has worked for MoveOn. He's referring to the toy that supplies answers on a floating die that surfaces when it's turned upside down. That need for control, said Carlston, is the result of Boyd and Blades' business orientation. "That's really common in people who come out of a business-oriented environment where you're results-oriented," he added. Zimmerman also acknowledges that MoveOn hasn't taken as much advantage of the community structures and on-line organizing made possible on the web. "They're aware of the dichotomy you're talking abut," he said. "I see them struggling to resolve that." What ZImmerman doesn't say: Now that the Internet is a part of grassroots politics, organizations have to embrace and encourage the give-and-take with leadership and one another.

Blades is mum on how or if MoveOn will change its approach, noting that the group had plenty of work during the election and needed to focus on its short-term priority, defeating Bush. "I want it to be effective. The question is 'What's going to be effective?'" She's clearly got some sort of plans. "I'm looking forward to this coming year. I'm looking forward to it because it's a time when we can be more issue-focused." A few days later Boyd told Salon’s Farhad Manjoo that he believed the group had accomplished its mission of creating a strong opposition to Bush and its new task was to develop some strategic initiatives to rival the Right’s success in injecting its ideological vision into the mainstream. Neither of them has said anything about rethinking the group’s slant or mode of operation.

So, now MoveOn faces a start-up's most unwelcome dilemma. Its original message has – because of its involvement with mainstream, big money Democratic Party politics – been corrupted, probably beyond repair. And while Blades talks about civic involvement across party lines, Boyd's desire to win the internecine warfare breaking out in the party seems like a return to MoveOn's original charter, complete with a soupçon of frustration and indignation Will Boyd and Blades be content, in the words of one party activist, to be the Democratic organization that "monetizes two million liberals"--reaching, again and again, into the pockets of an established constituency to support known topics in familiar ways? That's a role that would make MoveOn important but not particularly powerful. Those two million Liberals – like the 300,000 who signed the original "censure and move on" petition – can donate enough money to fund a presidential campaign but to win, they along with Blades, Boyd may have to make substantial and lasting changes.

Of course, MoveOn's core constituency may not care about winning. For them, the Holy Grail of reforming the Democratic Party in their "progressive" image may be enough to maintain the illusion of moving on.

What do you think MoveOn should do now? Join the conversation by posting your comments here.

Stand-alone journalist Chris Nolan runs "Politics From Left to Right," a San Francisco-based political site that focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and the differences between East Coast insiders and West Coast influencers.

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MoveOn.org: No Longer a Start-up or an Upstart

December 22, 2004

Chris Nolan

Where, oh where, is MoveOn.org headed now?

Recent history is no guide. Born as an outside-the-Beltway call to common sense during the Clinton Administration's final years, MoveOn's role in recent American politics keeps changing. First it was an anti-war organization, then a Howard Dean supporters' group -- meeting the passions and demands of its founders and members. Built upon an impassioned vow to breath new life into American politics by using a new and revolutionary communications medium, the Internet, MoveOn spent the 2004 election in the thick of the Democratic Party's ill-fated campaign to retake the White House. Staked and advised by some of the Democratic party’s shrewdest insiders, it raised and spent millions on good-ol’-fashioned negative advertising and high-priced consulting talent. Now, in the spirit of its first email petition dashed off in frustration, maybe even disgust, at politics as usual, MoveOn is crying foul at that same party. Few, even those who run its day-to-day operations, seem to have a clear idea of what's next.

For Democrats worried about raising money to defeat George W. Bush, MoveOn's Internet savvy solved a real problem: The party's long-standing need to quickly and efficiently collect cash. MoveOn was a brand new toy that came with all the "save the world" trappings that the less technologically sophisticated expect from the software and computer businesses. But for the tech-savvy, some of the organization's volunteers and supporters, what started out as an on-line political revolution turned over the course of the election into little more than upbeat marketing chatter designed to keep the customers happy and paying. Or, to put it in language any Silicon Valley vet would recognize: MoveOn’s small 'd' democratic revolution wasn't executed as described in the business plan. The product it promised -- a new way of conducting American politics – is still in beta with a long way to go.

In the 2004 election, MoveOn funded and ran an aggressive advertising campaign that kept Bush fighting hard for his re-election in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Florida, Missouri and Nevada. MoveOn proved the Internet's power as a fund-raising tool to skeptical politicians and professional campaign staffers. Its ability to quickly identify hot-button issues, channel the energy and outrage surrounding them into real dollar donations and signed on-line petitions is uniformly praised as a highly efficient way to channel grass-roots energy.

But MoveOn's philosophy and tactics are coming in for more and more criticism. Its head-in-the-sand approach to the realities of political life suggests that the group's members and leadership doesn't recognize how much its approach to politics differs from the rest of the party's, let alone the country. It seems a bit too comfortable with its ability to attract alienated liberals sporting holier-than-thou attitudes, anxious to preach to the misguided and uninformed through newspaper and TV ads, like a perpetual motion machine in Chris Suellentrop's biting words.

Why this animosity? Well, MoveOn disappointed many it involved. When it came to executing on the ground, its Election Day field efforts were fraught with difficulties. The absence of a "true" on-line community—as opposed to a giant focus group where only the leaders get to stand behind the one-way mirror—is also seen as a shortcoming. As is the difficulty that almost anyone – even an outside-the-beltway Democrat like Donnie Fowler seeking election to chair the Democratic National Committee – has in carefully picking their way through intermediaries to speak directly with its leadership. (A few days ago, he called me seeking help – I wish I was making this up!)

For all its talk about openness and process, MoveOn is more like the self-conscious websites run by political candidates and officeholders, concerned more about their reputation and message discipline than in nurturing the vibrant decentralized give-and-take that is coming to characterize activist community sites like DailyKos or Democratic Underground.

None of this is to deny the organization's real and valuable part in changing how this country conducts its political affairs. Started in 1998 as an email petition expressing outrage against President Bill Clinton's impeachment with the phrase "Censure and Move On," this past year MoveOn raised – mainly through individual contributions -- an astonishing $50 million on behalf of Democratic nominee John Kerry. Its online primary in June 2003 shook up the carefully orchestrated Democratic presidential nominating process designed to reward the candidate with the most early big money, not the one with grass-roots donors. Its ability to convert online enthusiasm into offline activity—flooding Congressional switchboards; organizing hundreds of meetings in local Congressional offices; spawning thousands of antiwar vigils and house-parties—has proved that net-based groups can motivate living, breathing humans. And its huge email list of 2.9 million names, including some 500,000 donors, is the envy of every liberal-leaning group in the country.

But with Kerry defeated, the contradictions in MoveOn’s choices have grown more acute and the answers – even when solicited from its founders -- less obvious. Despite the tremendous sums they have raised and their television ad campaigns on Kerry's behalf, MoveOn's founders decry the use of money in politics and say they are uncomfortable with TV advertising. Adopting the insiders' language they so revile, they recently took credit for "buying" the Democratic Party on behalf of millions of small donors. But the message MoveOn used terms guaranteed to offend those with whom the organization worked most closely – and paid handsomely -- in the past two years: "a consulting class of professional election losers."

It's an insulting charge, even if it does have merit. That it's lobbed by MoveOn's 24-year-old Political Action Committee director Eli Pariser doesn't help. "In the last year, grass-roots contributors like us gave more than $300 million to the Kerry campaign and the DNC, and proved that the party doesn't need corporate cash to be competitive," Pariser’s message continued. "Now it's our party: we bought it, we own it, and we're going to take it back."

Still a High-Tech Startup?

Well, that remains to be seen. As any high-tech exec would be happy to tell you, MoveOn is at the most precious juncture in any organization's development: It's ahead of everyone else. It has a name. It has a product. But it doesn't have a long-term strategy. That doesn't seem to bother co-founder Joan Blades. "We come from the computer industry. We're used to seeing people get an idea and run with it," she said recently over a waffle breakfast at a kosher deli near her home. (Despite repeated requests via email, Blades' husband and co-founder Wes Boyd was not available for an interview. "He is hard to tie down," Blades wrote in an setting up an appointment to talk.)

For Blades' long-time friend Sylvia Paull, another Berkeley resident and herself a tech personality, MoveOn is a start-up that reflects its founders' backgrounds. "You start something for one reason. That changes. That's the way tech is," she noted.

"It's very much a start-up," Blades agreed. "It's a small, tight team." Blades acknowledged that much of MoveOn's work doesn't follow a strict by-the-book progression. That working environment clearly suits Blades, a thin woman with a wide, sensuous mouth, rimless glasses and girlishly-long hair, streaked with grey. Small, of course, is cozy and flexible and easier to control. It's another hallmark of how Boyd and Blades do business, says Paull. "They're keeping MoveOn really small," says Paull. "They both grew up in Berkeley, they like small, tight communities."

Rare is the start-up that sets out with a goal and a product and ends up doing exactly what it planned. One project leads to another, the company attracts investors with only tangential interest in the original plan, an employee has a brainstorm and cooks something up in his spare time and before you know it, the company's mission has changed as it follows profit to make money. That, in a nutshell, is how Berkeley Systems, the company Blades and Boyd sold in 1997 for more than $13 million, came to be famous. Blades and Boyd started out developing tools to help the visually impaired, but their best-known products were the "flying toaster" screen saver and a collection of games and other computer entertainments. The openness and flexibility that kept Berkeley Systems alive with new ideas is clearly part of how Blades and Boyd see their political work. "Frankly, that's all we're doing. We're experimenting," says Blades. "Some things work better than others."

But a virtue in tech can be a mixed blessing in politics, particularly when your profile – Vanity Fair photo shoots, praise from Wired magazine -- is as high as Boyd and Blades' and your rhetoric often glaringly out-of-step with your actions. "When you have an organization that's as broad as MoveOn's is – and it's as broad as their imaginations – it's going to frustrate people," says one Washington-based political insider, issuing what might be the ultimate back-handed compliment. "You don't have to develop any depth. You can be a mile wide and an inch deep."

The two MoveOn founders would probably disagree with that assessment. But there's no question that – like many successful high-tech founders – they’ve been happily surprised to see their ideas blossom and grow. In 2001, MoveOn had planned to disband its PAC and toss its email list of contributors, feeling that its work, centered around the Clinton impeachment, might well have been over. Its "We Will Remember" campaign to unseat pro-impeachment Republicans had had limited impact in the 2000 elections.

Doug Carlston, another long-time friend of Blades and Boyd who founded and sold Broderbund Software and managed MoveOn's PAC through the 2002 election, argued, successfully, that the list should be retained. For her part, Blades said, members convinced MoveOn to continue and that when the organization was formally organized and started in 2000, it had made no plans to work past the end of the 2000 election cycle—some time in 2001 when the books would be closed. Regardless of the reasons, the conversation about throwing away email addresses -- which any experienced political organizer would regard as flat-out stupid -- is a little-known example of the indecision and conflict that has plagued MoveOn as it walks between political ambition and an outsiders' dislike for politics as practiced by the pros. "They weren't thinking 'movement.' They were business people," Carlston says. "I don't even think Wes and Joan thought of it as political – maybe in the broadest sense."

Welcome to the Party

Blades still talks with perfectly believable sincerity about MoveOn's ability to function as a bi-partisan effort, a course she and Boyd said they wanted to steer from the beginning. But the organization has – knowingly or not – abandoned that path. It has simply done too much to try to help Democrats, first Howard Dean, then John Kerry, to recapture a reputation as a group that overlooks party affiliation.

Nevertheless, Blades persists in thinking it's possible to reach political foes. "MoveOn members want to talk across party lines," she said during breakfast. "I believe most people share the same values: Nobody likes war. The deficit is bad for all of us. We all need a good environment." She's right. Those are all laudable goals for any society. But they are – and Blades can't seem to see this – the political goals of a liberal Democrat. They are issues that are important to people who understand economics, who are concerned – maybe even consumed -- with America's role in the world, particularly in Europe, and who would happily put jobs below environmental preservation because they live in communities where that choice is not necessary. Logging, oil exploration and real estate development aren't ways of life for them or their neighbors.

It's hard not to avoid the suspicion that the political naivety of its founders led MoveOn to the staunchly partisan stance it has taken. Blades is a charming and smart woman whose dedication to her cause – activism and civic involvement – is heartfelt and touching. But she and Boyd are somewhat removed from the give and take of politics in odd ways. "They don't do print," Paull says of her friends' news consumption. Nor do they watch very much TV (their set is kept in the fireplace behind a grate). That probably explains Blades' idealistic view of what her organization has done. She seems to take little notice of the hard, cold political realities involved in this last election and even less notice of the crucial backroom role MoveOn played in the larger Democratic war-game.

The organization that now calls consultants "professional election losers" paid the Denver-based Media Strategies and Research almost $14 million in 2003 and much of 2004 for ad buys and other services, according to information collected by the Center for Public Integrity, which has culled through spending records for much, but not all, of this year. California political strategist and ad-man Bill Zimmerman did well, too, cashing more than $1.7 million in MoveOn checks. Washington DC public relations impresario David Fenton's services have so far cost the organization $869,152. Blades mentions Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg in passing, noting that for a time, MoveOn couldn’t communicate with him or his firm, Greenberg, Quinlan Rosner Research (which received $1.9 million for its services from the organization) because the firm had gone to work for the Kerry campaign.

But how this happen? How did the frustrated outsiders upset with partisan warfare hook up with some of the party's better-known hired guns? Zimmerman, the political strategist, says Blades and Boyd made a tactical decision, choosing to work with the party establishment to help defeat Bush, setting aside, temporarily, their longer-term idealism. Carlston agrees. "There's a difference between what you do during a campaign during an election season and what you do during the interregnum," he says.

Zimmerman began working with Blades and Boyd in early 2003, as they and their members focused on the coming war in Iraq. The two MoveOn co-founders approached his firm hoping to create television ads airing their members' objections to the war. Toward summer, as MoveOn members demonstrated their willingness to donate money, it occurred to them that the organization's use of the Internet had even greater potential.

After it had been working with Zimmerman for several months, MoveOn was approached by the party's power players. They wanted to make sure Democrats could maintain a television air war between Super Tuesday – the day when the Democratic nominee would be known – and the beginning of the general campaign season, sometime after the convention. The idea was to make sure that the 2004 Democratic nominee didn't suffer the same fate that Republican Bob Dole faced against President Clinton in 1996: Being the candidate without the cash.

"We started to realize we might be in a situation where vast resources might be organized and put into play," says Zimmerman. MoveOn had found a way to turn the Internet into a cash register. "The Democrats who hate Bush, hate Bush," says a long-time Democratic consultant. "There's a rich liberal class now. They started giving money." And MoveOn clearly had their number. "No one knew how good the Internet would be," said the consultant, who lauds the organization’s ads, fundraising and timing. "MoveOn hit a nerve on the impeachment for a tech-savvy, elite liberal crowd," and they cashed in, again and again, as the election neared.

The timing of the Democratic Party's quiet but ruthlessly effective conversion of MoveOn from outside critic to inside operator is interesting. Zimmerman says he talked with Blades and Boyd about shoring up party efforts to criticize Bush, particularly in swing states, in the summer of 2003. That's when – according to several Democrats familiar with the party strategy as it was planned and executed -- MoveOn received $2.5 million donations each from financier George Soros and insurance magnate Peter Lewis. This was after the organization had held its "on-line primary" – a poll that Gov. Howard Dean, then a dark horse candidate, won handily. Second choice for MoveOn's 300,000-plus voters? Dennis Kucinich. John Kerry came in third, collecting just less than a third of the votes Dean received.

Blades say MoveOn offered its services – on-line organizing and fund-raising -- to all the Democratic candidates, but only Dean was savvy enough to take advantage of their offer. But his "victory" – and the cash infusion that accompanied it -- surely rattled the Democratic Party establishment. "We definitely wanted the Democratic Party to know the grassroots should be involved," Blades said recently. "If you want to call that rattling…"

Whatever you call it, it seems to have had an effect. Worried not just about the bruising primaries ahead but also concerned about the possibility that candidates, like Dean, with MoveOn's support, could stay in the race and split the party, killing any Democratic chance at victory, party leaders apparently decided to bring the Berkeley start-up and its disruptive technology into the tent. Whatever the reason--and money played a role--MoveOn was welcomed to primetime politics. Soon it turned the bulk of its energies to tapping its grassroots supporter to review TV ads and collect the money to pay for them.

Zimmerman says he wasn't – exactly – the matchmaker on the deal with Soros and Lewis but his fingerprints aren't hard to trace. He has worked on a series of state ballot initiatives to reform anti-drug laws sponsored by both men. (Oddly enough, that’s not how Blades remembers things. "I'm not aware of there being any coordination with the DNC," said Blades. "Certainly we wanted to fill in the gaps.")

TOMORROW: MoveOn's metamorphosis into a business-as-usual advertising focus group and fundraising machine; how it listens (and how it doesn’t); and its future course.

Stand-alone journalist Chris Nolan runs "Politics From Left to Right," a San Francisco-based political site that focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and the differences between East Coast insiders and West Coast influencers.

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