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Hijacking the Presidency
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It's August in Florida. We are between hurricanes; it rained hard earlier, and the evening now manages to somehow be both balmy and drizzly.
A dozen or so people gather around the marble-topped counter at the Caffe da'Vinci, a special-events-only coffee house/bar attached to an antique shop in western Volusia County. The "Caffe" isn't open regularly. However, with an expansive outdoor area for seating, stage, and dance flooras well as storage for antique claw foot bathtubs and pedestal sinks salvaged from old buildings destined for demolitionits funk value is high. It's a great place to hold a fundraiser or an artist appreciation party for a sidewalk art festival.
The group gathered here includes the shop owner, other downtown business owners, a lawyer or two, a Junior Leaguer, and an assortment of blue-collar, white-collar, and in-between-collar wage earners. There isn't a bomb-tossing
anarchist or wild-eyed radical in the bunch. If you didn't know better, you might mistake most of them for Republicans.
This disparate group has come together because they have one important thing in common: They all want to see someone other than George W. Bush in the White House come January, and they're willing to organize an event to raise money to help that happen.
Scenes like this have played on in cities across America during the 2004 presidential campaign. Many of them have been motivated by bloggers, e-mail activists, and independent political committees who have all but usurped the flow of information about everything from the war in Iraq and Bush's armed forces record to Kerry's actions while commanding a Navy Swift Boat and his choice of cheese on his sub sandwiches.
The proliferation of players in the campaign game has ignited a ton of controversy, both from the Republicans, who took the first and biggest hits from ads by groups like MoveOn, and from the mainstream media, who have expended reams of paper and gallons of ink analyzing the issue. (See Newsweek's September 20 centerpiece coverage of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth or Time's September 27 cover story, "Who Owns the Truth?" for example.)
No doubt all the out-of-the-mainstream politicking will be a major factor at the ballot in November. Regardless of which candidate ends up in office, however, the controversy is sure to continue. The argument will boil down to this: Are these ≥unofficial," private players in the campaign game a good thing or bad? Is this simply grass roots democracy using modern technology to allow the average Joe to play a meaningful role in government? Or have the Internet and campaign finance reform loopholes allowed a new group of special interests to hijack the political process?
I wrote the following for IMPACT press more than three years ago:
What we need is a New Left that has learned how to get things done from watching the extreme Rightone that will get together and organize its point of view; one that will work to actually accomplish things, rather than generate ≥dialogue"; and one that will make use of the existing system to accomplish its goals. (≥Ripe for Revolt: Building a New Left." IMPACT press, February-March, 2001)
At the time, I felt that America's left, what little there was of it, was fragmented and static. Perhaps what the left needed to get off the dime, I thought, was another Vietnam, another Nixon, another evil military-industrial complexa common cause that would unite the peaceniks, the animal-lovers, the feminazis, the tree-huggers, and all us other bleeding heart liberals into one solid group with some credibility and a workable program that might counteract the unceasing assault on civil liberty and human decency coming from the religious and secular right.
Apparently, all we needed was four years under George W. Bush.
When he assumed office following a controversial, contested election, the President promised to be "a uniter, not a divider." Since then, Americans have become even more divided: Iraq alone would probably have been enough to cause a return of the us-versus-them mindsets that characterized the Vietnam era. But from the administration's use of September 11 to justify blanket invasions of our privacy to the failed national economy, the Bush administration has created a something-for-almost-everyone state of anger among America's progressives.
In response, progressives have indeed organized. As I hoped, the leftand centerhave used existing systems to pursue progressive goals. There have been demonstrations the likes of which haven't been seen in America for three decades.
For the most part, however, the contemporary activist has used two decidedly mainstream systems for organizing and promoting its agenda. Instead of bleak tenement rooms or campus quads, these activists are most visible on Internet activist Web sites and blogs. And rather than form underground societies, they adopted an organizational structure that has been around since 1974the 527 political committee, so named because of the section of the IRS code that defines them.
The Internet has become today's equivalent of whistle-stop railroad platforms and town hall meetings; the 'net has been abuzz with political activity this campaign cycle. But by now, organizations ranging from one end of the political spectrum to the other have co-opted models created by early Internet activists like Ben Cohen, President of True Majority, a 501(c)3 political action committee, and Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, two high-tech industry entrepreneurs who founded MoveOn, a 527 political organization.
Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry got an early shove forward from the more left-leaning organizations that have promoted an anyone-but-Bush agenda since the beginning of this campaign cycle.
That's good news to those who want to see President Bush replaced. For decades, Republican candidates have regularly been able to out-raise and outspend Democratssmall wonder, since the economic planks in Republican platforms tend to favor very wealthy individuals and corporate interests. Broadcast media, from which most Americans get most of their information, has tended to favor the Bush administration. And of course, the president has the incumbent advantage; Americans have had four years to get to know President Bush, but only a few months in which to get to know Senator Kerry.
"Unofficial" assistance from Internet-based groups, voters motivation organizations, and others have helped level the playing field, both by building a sense of unity among their members and by helping fill in the information gapthe difference between the information as it is presented by mainstream media and the side of the story that the government hasn't wanted told.
As with all things good, there are drawbacks, of course. One of them arose during that first organizational meeting at Caffe da'Vinci. "How do we raise money?" would be an easy question to answer. The committee had already decided to have food and drink, and one enterprising member had lined up several bands. Another had donated several old doors to artists from Central Florida; the artists would decorate the doors in political themes, then auction them to help "show Bush the door."
The tough question, however, was this one: "What do we do with the money, once we've raised it?"
The consensus among the group was clear: everyone wanted the money put where it would do the most good. "I want Bush defeated," said one. "I want it to go where it has the best chance of helping that happen."
Some groups, said another Caffe klatscher, seem "too negative." Other groups seem mainly to preach to their own choirs, sending their e-mail messages mainly to people that were probably already planning to vote Democrat.
There are so many players in this election one almost needs a scorecard to keep track of them. While many of their messages and missions overlap, each has its own set of goals. For the Caffe committee, the issue boiled down to whether the money should go to "Show George the Door," for example, a project of
TrueMajorityACTION PAC, or one of several others.
Perhaps it should it go to MoveOn, a 527 organization and PAC that has funded the creation and broadcast of anti-Bush ads, including the notorious ad that was banned from Super Bowl broadcast. Or perhaps it should go to Media Fund, another 527 that raises money for "issue" advertising. Or perhaps the money should go to Media Fund's sister corporation,
America Coming Together (ACT), which sends canvassers door-to-door encouraging Democratically-inclined and undecided citizens to register and vote.
In the end, the group decided to donate the funds raised to ACT, with additional funds raised through a "Show George the Door" auction going to TrueMajority.
TrueMajority was founded by Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream fame, as a Web site devoted to Internet political activism. The free site operates on the principle that millions of citizens feel strongly about issues like human rights, ending American dependence on foreign oil, renouncing the militarization of space, or campaign finance reform, but don't have the time, money, or means to actively support those issues.
Cohen's organization operates mainly by sending periodic e-mail to its membership. The electronic communiqués give members the opportunity to quickly fax to their congressmen their opinion on whatever issue is hot that day, whether it be prison abuses in Iraq or paperless balloting in Florida. TrueMajority has also created a stir with clever, attention getting projects like "Show Bush the Door" house parties and by the "Pants on Fire" campaign, a 1997 Ford Crown Victoria towing a trailer that carries an effigy of the President with his pants ablaze.
ACT is a non-FEC-regulated 527. Because 527 groups operate free of regulation from the FEC, they have taken a lot of criticismusually from candidates they have attacked.
However, a 527 has to follow a mind-numbing set of rules to stay free of FEC control. For example, it must identify the name and address of contributors of $200 or more and recipients of $500 or more. If the donor or recipient is a person, the group is supposed to list the employer and occupation of that individual.
The law compelling disclosure by 527 groups was signed just months after the 2000 presidential nominating season, during which mysterious groups whose donors were unknown spent millions of dollars on televised ads that touted or criticized federal candidates. Republicans for Clean Air, for example, spent $2.5 million on anti-John McCain ads. Sam Wyly, a wealthy Dallas entrepreneur and longtime backer of then-Texas Governor George Bush, later claimed credit for the spots, which precipitated the McCain campaign's demise.
Depending on whose records you trust, 527 organizations have raised between $150 million and $250 million to influence the presidential campaign this year , and millions more dollars have gone to state-oriented 527 groups.
In a sense, the Democrat-leaning 527s are an extension of fundraising and "independent" voter mobilizations long used by both parties. Democrats have traditionally used African American churches, for example, to help bring voters to the polls, while Republicans have used the religious right to promote their agenda and candidates. Republicans have also effectively used talk radioRush Limbaugh is a prime exampleto promote and support their reactionary ideologies and candidates.
When it comes to support from 527s, Democrats have held the advantage during the current election cycle. Of the 527s considered "major players" in this year's election, at least 15 are pro-Democrat (or anti-Bush) groups, and about 10 are conservative or Republican-oriented. Media Fund, for example, has planned to raise $100 million for an ad campaign to support the Democratic candidate. Thus far, they have run a dozen ads on television in 17 swing states, plus half a dozen radio and print ads in targeted markets.
ACT is one of the top 26 groups of its kind active in this election cycle. According to
Open Secrets, the group is run by longtime Democratic operatives like Minyon Moore, a former CEO of the Democratic National Committee, and financed in part by the
Sierra Club, labor groups, and big-money donors like George Soros, who pledged $10 million to ACT for this cycle. By January 2004, the organization had raised $30 million, with a goal of $125 million.
However, Republicans are catching up. Right-leaning 527s now account for one of every four dollars raised. According to "GOP 527s Gaining Ground," an article by Derek Willis published by the
Center for Public Integrity, 527 groups promoting Bush or opposing Kerry have made big strides in a short time. One of the newest filers, MoveOnForAmerica.org, is the Republican "mirror image" of MoveOn. The organizers hope to use MoveOn-style techniques to support the Republican agenda.
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Progress for America Voter Fund, both Republican-favoring 527s, have raised more than $26 million since June. According to Willis, Progress for America Voter Fund, formed earlier this year, has raised $24.7 million, and has aired pro-Bush advertisements in swing states like Wisconsin and Ohio.
The millions of dollars they have raised includes $5 million each from San Diego Chargers football team owner Alex Spanos and Ameriquest Capital co-chairman Dawn Arnall, $2.5 million from Texas oil man and business magnate T. Boone Pickens and $2 million each from Amway executives Richard DeVos and Jay VanAndel of Michigan.
Since June, the Swifties and Progress for America have spent more than $4.1 million on television and radio advertisements. Much of the controversy over actions by 527s came in the wake of the Swifties'first ad, which ran in Ohio, Wisconsin, and West Virginia. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's version of "truth" offers a good example of one drawback of "unofficial" campaign activity by 527s. The ad lied, and did so blatantly.
Until their now-infamous first ad, many Americans had never heard about 527 organizations. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth came together only months ago and has only spent about $2 million so far on attack ads, yet they managed to at least temporarily set back the Kerry campaign a few points by depicting him as dishonest with regards to his military record while serving in Vietnam.
The group's first ad claimed Kerry's account of his actions while commanding a Navy Swift Boatactions that earned him several medalswere fabricated and/or embellished. The Swifties'claims were quickly discredited. Further, the group posted on its web site a letter it claimed was signed by 300 veterans who had served in Vietnam on Swift Boats, including Bob Anderson of Columbus, Montana.
Anderson denied signing the letter. In an interview with the Billings Gazette ("Columbia Swift Boat Vet Angry About Letter," September 1, 2004), Anderson said he was "flabbergasted" when he learned the Swifties had used his name. Not only did he not sign the letter, which claimed Kerry had "distorted the conduct" of American military in Vietnam when he protested the war, but he disagreed with it. "Had they asked me to use my name, I wouldn't have allowed them to," he said.
The Swifties'ad is a good example of one downside of the role Internet-based 527 organizations can play in influencing the democratic process. Politics has always been a matter of cherry-picking the facts to present a reality favorable to the politician. Politicians, however, can be held accountable when they out-and-out lie. There are few (if any) ways to ensure that the information passed around by these private, tax-exempt organizations has any credibility, aside from the reactions by 527s supporting the other side.
The candidatesor at least their campaign advisorshave not been silent about activities from their unofficial advocates and opponents. The Kerry campaign, after hoping the Swift Boat Veterans'ads would blow over after their prevarication was exposed, finally responded by questioning the group's connections to Republican campaign officials.
Despite the growing number of Republican-leaning groups, the Bush campaign has taken even harsher steps, filing a lawsuit, accusing at least five organizations, including MoveOn, Media Fund, and ACT of violating the law by coordinating efforts with the Kerry campaign.
In an interview in The Washington Post ("Bush Sues to Stop Ć527'Groups Backing Kerry," September 2, 2004), Kerry advisor Michael Meehan responded, "Given the coordination with the White House, Karl Rove, and Bush Swift Boat vets, we hope the Bush campaign included themselves in their frivolous lawsuit."
Unfortunately, Hurricane Jeanne turned toward Florida as the Caffe da'Vinci fund raiser neared, and the scheduled event had to be postponed until some indefinite time between the storm and the election, so results can't be reported in time for publication. Nor, probably, will the event happen in time to register more voters.
In the meantime, tickets have been sold and awareness built among voters that there is a movement to bring a hope back for America's future. Hopefully, the committee's time and expense won't have gone to waste. With luck, the party will go on, maybe to celebrate the retreat of the Bush administration from the White House.
That organizations like TrueMajority, MoveOn and even Swift Boat Veterans for Truth can influence elections has a very positive side: Potentially, such organizations can turn presidential campaigning into a more populist process. Perhaps now more than ever in the past, a grass roots movement can effectively influence the outcome of an election.
Bush, pressed to condemn the Swifties'untruthful ads, said he did indeed want them to stop. In fact, he wanted all the ads from all the 527s to stop.
Little wonder. For more than a year, the president's every misstep has been hounded by groups like MoveOn and TrueMajority. If Bush loses his federal job this November, he may go down in history as the first U.S. president defeated by Silicon Valley geeks and bearded, ice cream-making old hippies.
Morris Sullivan is a free-lance journalist living in DeLand, Florida. When he's not accosting strangers on the street to ask them dumb questions or sitting on his ass at a computer getting fatter, he prepares for the collapse of civilization by growing tomatoes and peppers in his backyard.
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