MoveOn.com, the avowedly activist online political forum, has challenged politicians, journalists, and others in power to show progressive leadership in these troubled times. They've solicited a lot of money and time from American citizens.
Now MoveOn itself is under criticism for avoiding an endorsement in the New York Democratic primary for the Senate, between incumbent Hillary Clinton and challenger Jonathan Tasini (see related Ithaca Blog article from August 23).
MoveOn maintains that Clinton's lead is so large that to endorse her is not necessary, while to endorse her challenger would be divisive. Critics say that this is hardly a guiding principle for an organization that endorses grassroots democracy.
The New York Times last week overtly suggested that MoveOn finds itself impaired by, and even afraid of, Senator Clinton's status and money. Clinton's campaign has so far raised over $40 million dollars, compared to Tasini's $200,000. Clinton has instant name recognition and is a leading candidate for the presidency in 2008, whereas Tasini is a relative unknown.
In terms of the issues, Tasini's positions are considerably more progressive than Clinton's. As senator, Clinton's failure to show leadership for same-sex marriage, and her support of criminalization of flag-burning, are two examples of an apparent strategy of courting a perceived centrist base necessary for national election. Similarly, and most significantly, Clinton voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, and has put forth no plan for exit from Iraq, while Tasini calls for an immediate withdrawal of troops.
The Democratic primary for the Senate in Connecticut last month had many parallels to New York's, with an unknown anti-war candidate challenging a pro-war incumbent. In that race, however, MoveOn endorsed the challenger, Ned Lamont, who went on to defeat the incumbent, Joe Lieberman.
Why the difference in MoveOn's positions? The discernible differences in the two races are not about issues, but power. Clinton's influence is growing, while Lieberman's has waned since his losses as Al Gore's running mate in 2000, and against John Kerry for the presidential nomination in 2004. And while Tasini's campaign struggles for money, Lamont had a personal fortune of millions invested in his effort.
So is MoveOn moving to the realpolitik of money and strength, instead of progressive principles?
MoveOn responded to the criticism today, announcing a poll that will dictate its stance. But while designed to lessen the political heat, the response might instead draw more.
The poll asks MoveOn voters to cast a vote for either Clinton or Tasini. But there are considerable catches in the exercise.
MoveOn says that if either candidate receives two-thirds of the votes in the poll, the organization will formally endorse that candidate.
But if neither candidate receives a two-thirds majority, MoveOn will formally abstain.
Which means they might as well announce the results now: no endorsement.
Even in the largest landslide victories in American politics, the winner won't get two-thirds. In 1972, Richard Nixon carried 49 states, and didn't get two-thirds.
So it certainly seems a move disguised as democratic for an outcome that is anything but. It seems to say that MoveOn's leaders do not wish to challenge Hillary Clinton; but this gesture lets them say that they have responded to the membership.
That response is being solicited with one day's notice - on a holiday weekend. And it requires a result that only a candidate with Clinton's advantages could possibly hope to achieve.
The progressive movement needs all the help it can get in doing the crucial work of this democracy. So it is difficult to criticize a group with MoveOn's visibility.
But in politics, as in life, everyone makes mistakes. And time and again in politics we see that mistakes are not as dangerous as the failure to admit them.
The great mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, once famously said, "When I make a mistake, it's a beaut." Let's hope MoveOn can learn their New York lesson - and in a New York minute. The primary election between Clinton and Tasini is in less than two weeks, on September 12.
for Ithaca Blog
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