Onward and Forward

On a blustery march day, Peter Schurman, the executive director of MoveOn.org, stands next to a Win Without War poster at a press conference on Capitol Hill. Schurman is a 34-year-old Yale School of Management graduate with a high forehead, blue eyes, and razor-sharp features who doesn't like to talk about himself. He's not a touchy-feely kind of guy. Yet a middle-aged woman in a gray sweater, Sue Niederer, is hugging him in front of a group of reporters. She has lost her son, Lieutenant Seth Dvorin, in the Iraq War, and she clutches Schurman's coat, twisting the fabric with her fingers. He stands next to her, stiffly, as tears run down her face. Finally, she untangles herself.

“Get them home, and not in a box,” she says. “That's all I care about.”

Even Schurman is moved: He pats her shoulder and murmurs a few comforting words. Still, he is from Maine. Instead of getting all blubbery, he and a group of volunteers set to work in front of the Cannon Office Building, assembling petitions (560,340 of them) that call for President Bush to be censured for misleading the nation on the reasons for the Iraq War. Then he walks the halls of Congress and delivers the petitions, letting photographers from Newsweek and Time scoot ahead to take pictures. It's a masterful media moment -- and the latest in a string of high-profile events MoveOn has designed to make George W. Bush look very, very bad.

MoveOn may only be less than 6 years old, but it's a gigantic, noisy, attention-getting youngster that's having a big impact on this year's election, raising millions, bringing in hundreds of thousands of new recruits, and galvanizing grass-roots activists in a way that hasn't been seen since the 1970s. At first glance, the organization, which is actually three separate entities -- a 501(c)(4) that focuses on education and advocacy work, a political action committee (PAC) that helps progressives get elected, and a “527” voter-education organization -- seems like a folksy operation. Its founders, the husband-and-wife team of Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, work out of their Berkeley, California, home. Their expenses for 2001-2002 totaled $246,412. (From 2002-2003, their expenses jumped to $2,326,629.)

But MoveOn's efforts are far from low-key. So far, it's attracted more than 2.9 million members in the United States and overseas, says field director Adam Ruben, 34. (Any time a person volunteers time, donates money, or signs a petition, he or she becomes a member.) That's bigger than the Christian Coalition ever was. (The Christian Coalition's national field director, Bill Thomson, says his group is now at its peak with 2.1 million members.) Members live in every state across the United States, and they range from a 21-year-old University of Southern California student to a 38-year-old health-care researcher in Reston, Virginia, to a 73-year-old retired schoolteacher in Sun City, Arizona.

Unlike organizations such as Emily's List or the Sierra Club, MoveOn doesn't focus on a single issue. As an affinity group, it attracts different kinds of people who are passionate about everything from mercury poisoning to “black box” voting machines to global warming. Updates on these issues -- as well as opportunities for members to get involved in campaigns focusing on them -- are posted regularly on MoveOn's Web site. Lately, though, anti-Bush sentiment has helped MoveOn focus its goals.

In January, cbs refused to run MoveOn's $1.6 million, 30-second “Child's Pay” ad (an attack on the deficit) during the Super Bowl, and national media like Good Morning America and Nightline picked up the story. Since then, MoveOn has managed to turn this election year into one in which Americans of all stripes talk about the president's misdeeds.

“They are making a case to defeat Bush and are, in some respects, better than the Democratic National Committee and the Kerry campaign in getting people involved,” says Michael Cornfield, author of Politics Moves Online. “They're out there every week, getting the word out. If [John] Kerry wins, of course they deserve credit.”

Part of the key to MoveOn's impact is its activist membership. Even its leaders acknowledge that. “Cesar Chavez used to say, ‘There are two sources for power: money and people,'” says Ruben, who's done grass-roots organizing for U.S. PIRG and the Sierra Club. “If it weren't for our members, we'd be 10 people with a lot of great ideas. As it happens, we have more than 2 million people who agree to those ideas and are willing to do something about them.”

The other reason MoveOn works so well is that the group makes it easy for members to “do something.” Tracy Westen, a USC Annenberg School for Communication professor who studies grass-roots organizing, says, “The '50s were supposed to be an apathetic generation and then – boom -- came the '60s: Vietnam War, civil rights, marches and sit-ins. In those days, though, participating took a lot of effort. MoveOn lets you do it in a few easy steps.”

Here's how it works: MoveOn staffers will post an announcement on the organization's Web Site and ask for donations of time or money. On March 24, for example, they asked members to sponsor an ad featuring Richard Clarke. Six days later, the $300,000 ad appeared on FOX and CNN. (MoveOn's members are a generous bunch: According to Campaigns Director Eli Pariser, from November 10, 2003, through February 28, 2004, more than 100,000 members gave money in small donations, raising $5 million during that period.)

On March 16, two days after Donald Rumsfeld, appearing on Face the Nation, falsely denied that administration officials had ever used the phrase “imminent threat” to describe the former Iraqi regime, Adam Feinstein, a 31-year-old Brooklyn filmmaker and MoveOn member, was prepping the segment for Internet streaming. The footage was posted on MoveOn's site the following day with a tag line that read, “It's time for the deception to stop.”

“For ordinary citizens to have an impact on public dialogue while it's happening -- that's just unheard of,” says Cornfield. “It's like with Jay Leno and David Letterman. They work in a 24-hour cycle, and they're quick with their comments. In the same way, MoveOn is ready. But they get more than a laugh. They get money.”

Even MoveOn's critics think it's on the right track.

“Believe me, these people are very savvy,” says a CBS spokesman who is still peeved over the Super Bowl fracas. “As soon as the ad was rejected, they held a press conference. Between you and me, I'd do the same thing if I were on their side. I'm a PR guy.”

In September 1998, Blades and Boyd were just another couple of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs having lunch in a Chinese restaurant. Together, they had founded Berkeley Systems, which created the “Flying Toaster” screensavers. On her own, Blades had written a book called Mediate Your Divorce, which had ensured her a steady income.

Then, explains Blades, they overheard someone at the next table talking about “how crazy the impeachment fixation was.” A couple of days later, on September 18, 1998, Blades and Boyd set up an online petition, “Censure President Clinton and Move On to Pressing Issues Facing the Nation.” They sent the petition out to some friends, who then passed it on. Eventually, more than 500,000 people had signed on.

Since then, their success or failure has been directly tied to the issue they've chosen to highlight. In 2000, they focused on local congressional races, and eventually gave out $2.4 million to 30 men and women running for office; 13 of them won seats in the House and Senate. In 2002, they focused their efforts on the environment and campaign-finance reform -- a tactical error because the public wasn't passionate about the latter. By August, they had only 450,000 members, writes Cornfield, fewer than the number of people who'd signed their original Clinton petition. That year, they distributed a paltry $127,000 to House and Senate candidates.

But Bush's war plans helped them get back on track. MoveOn formed a partnership with an organization called Win Without War in the fall of 2002, working together on press events and fund raising. Boyd says MoveOn hasn't earmarked contributions to Kerry to date, but it has highlighted the Kerry Web site to its members in the belief that “at least several million dollars were contributed to the campaign as a result.” In addition, Boyd says, the MoveOn PAC is committed to a $50 million campaign through November -- $10 million for get-out-the-vote activities, $20 million for advertising that shows why Bush is a bad choice for the presidency, and $20 million in earmarked contributions “for candidates from Kerry down to state level races.”

Today, MoveOn inspires the kind of obsessive love usually reserved for Bikram yoga: It is “one of the joys of my life,” says Heather Booth, 58, a Washington-based consultant and activist. Anne Lamott is “deeply grateful” to the group (at least according to her blurb for MoveOn's book, 50 Ways to Love Your Country). Arianna Huffington says MoveOn is her “political Viagra.”

Still, MoveOn has room to grow.

“Their weaknesses are they never win a major campaign. They tried to stop the [Iraq] War. They tried to get Bill Clinton censured,” says Cornfield. “Their other weakness is they're focused on saying, ‘Stop this,' not, ‘Do this.' They're experimenting with coming up with good policy proposals, but they haven't figured it out.”

While MoveOn may not have a comprehensive set of policy statements to present to the public, it has created a uniquely energized movement in 21st-century politics -- and an enticing foil for Bush.

“The challenge,” says Schurman about the next step, “is how we retake control of our government. Most people would rather have peace than war, and they want to leave a better world for our kids. The majority of people agree with us, and we really just have to organize them.”