SAN FRANCISCO – After President Bush won re-election, many political observers expected MoveOn.org to move into retreat. The sentiment surrounding the liberal online powerhouse was neatly summed up by the satire publication The Onion in its spoof headline: "MoveOn CurlsUp InCorner."
But on a Sunday night just two weeks after the Nov. 2 election, the group was back — hosting 1,600 house parties across the country where some 18,000 members gathered to vent and vote on how MoveOn should refocus after such a decisive Republican victory.
"With 56 million people not signed up to the Bush agenda and the Democratic establishment in exile, people are looking for ways to move in another direction," said MoveOn founder Wes Boyd. "In the current circumstances, we are more needed than ever."
Just a year ago, the Berkeley, Calif.-based MoveOn was hailed by many as "the next big thing" in political organizing. Having won fame as the voice of the anti-Iraq war movement, MoveOn was gearing up its cybercommunity of activists to wage a high-profile battle against Bush's re-election.
Armed with over $30 million raised from donors ranging from students to billionaire financier George Soros (search), MoveOn moved well beyond cyberspace — organizing star-studded concerts, airing television ads produced by A-list Hollywood directors and mobilizing 70,000 members to walk precincts in key battleground states.
But the efforts proved ultimately unsuccessful, and amid the inevitable postelection recriminations MoveOn came in for plenty of heat.
Republicans took aim at the group for allowing a member's proposed TV ad comparing Bush to Adolf Hitler to be briefly posted on its Web site.
Others complained that MoveOn and other so-called 527 organizations like America Coming Together (search) and the Media Fund (search) sometimes worked at cross-purposes with the Kerry campaign, creating a hodgepodge of confusing messages.
Still others said that while MoveOn was effective in stirring up a sense of righteous anger among hardcore Democratic partisans and anti-war activists, the message didn't necessarily resonate with swing voters.
"We got all the votes of people who were against the war — what we didn't get were the votes of people who were for the war," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick. "Bush got the votes of people like married white women and Latinos who, despite their affinity with Democrats on other concerns, believed Bush would be stronger in the war on terror. And that wasn't really MoveOn's agenda."
MoveOn plans a formal announcement in the next few weeks to lay out its agenda for the coming year. But at the November house parties members voted to prioritize efforts to remove barriers to voting, such as requiring electronic voting machines to produce paper receipts. They also vowed to pursue ways to create a media counterbalance to what they say is a right-tilting FOX News.
"Our whole approach was to take people who are online members and get them into off-line activity," said Adam Ruben, MoveOn's field director. "We can get a lot done on the Internet but we know that to reach beyond the choir, there are essential parts of political activity we can't neglect."
The group was founded during the Clinton impeachment debate as an online petition urging Congress to censure him and move on to other business.
In the short term, MoveOn's leaders say its mission remains the same: mobilizing rapid response on issues of concern to the organization, from the Iraq war to future battles over Social Security privatization and nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the long term, Boyd said, the group will seek a more substantial foundation for the progressive movement, from creating think tanks to counteract the conservative Heritage Foundation (search) and Hoover Institution (search) to building grassroots networks that rival the Republican Party's deep ties to evangelical churches.
"People really feel like they're at the beginning of a movement rather than the end of a campaign," said political director Eli Pariser. "It's such an exciting feeling for a lot of these people, and it mitigates some of the heartbreak of the next four years."
MoveOn's many boosters say that despite the election's outcome, the group motivated voters more effectively this year than either Kerry or the Democratic Party. The group was also widely credited with its rapid reaction to news events, even launching ads renouncing the claims made by the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search) before the Kerry campaign responded to those charges.
For his part, Boyd said MoveOn would always remain a "progressive, populist" organization that represents a broad cross-section of middle America, with many members brand new to the political process.
"People are engaged and they've learned two things: They are very concerned about where the country is going, and that even if you lose, being involved in politics is a positive thing," Boyd said.