EMAIL SIGN UP!
Most Popular This Week
Today's Top News
Jane Hamsher Leads Left Away from White House
While President Barack Obama has struggled to keep the center together, he's had one unquestioned political success: Keeping the left at bay. A battle-tested Democratic infrastructure fell into line behind the White House, with regular meetings and conference calls to coordinate strategy and preempt any breach of message discipline - easy on the Tim Geithner! - or what chief of staff Rahm Emanuel might regard as obstructionist behavior.
That alliance, which endured in spite of sometimes emotional differences on the shape of health care legislation, is now under increasing strain. Obama's commitment of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan Tuesday night has energized a left increasingly angry at what it perceives as Obama's accommodations with the center and an energized right.
MoveOn is one of the handful of groups breaking from the White House's hold on big liberals to raise money, activate volunteers and threaten for the first time, Obama's left flank. And so is a pixie-ish 50 year old former Hollywood producer who named her blog after her dog, and is taking what she calls "the next step in our evolution."
The campaign launched by Jane Hamsher, whose blog Firedoglake first came to national attention for obsessive coverage of the Valerie Plame investigation, is called, "One Voice for Choice," and uses the nifty online phone banking tools that helped power Obama's campaign to put a scare into House Democrats who voted to attach the anti-abortion Stupak Amendment to health care legislation.
The calls will target, in particular, pro-choice Democrats in those typically conservative district, threatening to cut the base out from under Democrats who are straining to reach out to the other side.
"We're taking something that was like gold to them and that they were counting on having and saying they can't take it for granted," she said, describing House Democrats' tendency to take the progressive base for granted.
The initiative is Hamsher's latest assault on what she calls "the Veal Pen" - the tightly-managed coalition of Democratic groups centered financially around the Democracy Alliance and organizationally around the Center for American Progress, both in turn creations of the left in exile in the Bush years. She borrowed the phrase from Douglas Coupland's 1991 "Generation X," in which he used it to describe a generation trapped in cubicles.
Those groups have now traded a measure of independence for, as they see it, the effectiveness that comes with working with the White House, and those who step outside that model have learned quickly that the White House doesn't forgive slights.
"What makes Jane so unique is that she not only lacks a need for Beltway access, but she affirmatively disdains it. She doesn't need Rahm Emanuel to approve of what she's doing," said Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald, another independent on the left and frequent White House critic, in an email.
The year's great - and frustrating - causes on the left have been the Afghan war and the health care public option. Hamsher and Firedoglake first began to flex their muscles on the former, organizing a "whip count" of progressive members of Congress to pledge to vote against supplemental funding for the war.
In tandem with a revolt on the right against a provision connected to the International Monetary Fund, the anti-war revolt delayed the legislation and marked a turn toward clear opposition in parts of Congress.
One of Hamsher's obsessions is the anemic fundraising apparatus on the progressive left, and it's something she's sought to change. With a large and loyal readership, she and her allies have been able to raise tens of thousands of dollars, through the website ActBlue, for members of Congress who pledge support for her causes.
"Being able to have an effective political arm is a function of having an independent financial structure," she said.
The cash flow from ActBlue - organized by Firedoglake and allies including MoveOn - has come as a surprise to some of its beneficiaries, primarily members of Congress pledging to vote against health care legislation that lacks the public option.
"I got a funny call from [Texas Rep.] Lloyd Doggett's chief of staff" after bundling some $12,000 in small contributions through ActBlue, Hamsher recalls. "He asked, 'This a donation from you personally? I don't think we can accept this amount.' I was like, 'No, let me walk you through this.'"
By its willingness to accommodate the White House's effort get a health care bill even if it meant losing the public option, the mainstream liberal infrastructure created the opening for new groups, like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, to spring up, and has empowered Hamsher.
"She gets a ton of credit for keeping the public option alive," said MoveOn communications director Ilyse Hogue.
Hamsher has survived three bouts of breast cancer, and her connection to the health care issue is intensely personal.
"I don't know how you live through that" without money, said Hamsher, who says she spent some $60,000 out-of-pocket despite being fully insured.
Hamsher, in a previous life, worked with some success in Hollywood, and paid from her savings. Her highest profile project was a producing credit on Natural Born Killers, followed by a memoir, "Killer Instinct." But Hamsher has always blended the personal and the political, writing at length about her health. When Kobe, the dog in Firedoglake, died earlier this fall, she published a wrenching 5,000 word tribute.
Greenwald chalks up her willingness to defy the White House in part to the fact that she - like he - doesn't hail from a particular Beltway culture.
"I think Jane's success in a prior career has made her immune to the rewards of access -- and fear of punishment -- which keep most younger inside-the-Beltway progressives obediently in line," he said. "She's not 26 years old and desperate to work for a DC think tank, a Democratic politician or a progressive institution. She doesn't care in the slightest which powerful people dislike her, but rather sees that reaction as vindication for what she's doing."
But Hamsher is a funny kind of outsider: One distinctly comfortable with Washington's circles of power. She's a frenetic operator of the mainstream media, the blogs, and the email lists that power semi-official Washington. She learned where the wires are in part from one of the ultimate insiders, SEIU President Andy Stern, whom she dated for two years.
"Jane, and all FDL, has become a serious player very fast," said Tom Matzzie, a former MoveOn official who is now a political consultant. "She knows media and she knows how to throw a punch."
Hamsher's left hook isn't her only move, though, and the White House and its "Veal Pen" allies haven't been the only victims. Some eyebrows went up on the progressive left when she scolded MoveOn for allegedly failing to support members of Congress who promised to sink a bill lacking a public option - just two weeks after the group had lent its support to a wildly successful fundraiser on the issue. (MoveOn's Hogue declined to comment.)
And she parted bitterly from former allies in organizing Blue America PAC, with which she is no longer associated.
"I gave it the name, and now some people who were once associated with it have stolen our graphics and our brand without permission are using them to promote a splinter effort," Hamsher said, noting that the name "Blue America" was coined as a Firedoglake column.
"I don't know what that means - it doesn't make any sense and it doesn't have any basis in fact," responded Howie Klein, a former music executive, Los Angeles-based DJ, and lesser-known political blogger who declined to detail his falling-out with Hamsher, citing legal advice.
But Hamsher's sharp elbows haven't prevented her from being a central, and effective, player on the left, with a distinct agenda: To reclaim the "narrative of discontent" from Tea Party activists and other conservatives who have seized it from a neutered progressive movement.
A particularly grave error, in her view, was steering the groups away from populist assaults on the AIG bonuses early in Obama's term.
"The natural people who would have been organizing at that point in time were the liberal groups. The bankers came to the White House and said, 'We want you to ratchet down the rhetoric and that's what happened. The word went out at those meetings, 'Don't criticize the bankers, don't criticize Geithner and Summers,'" she said, referring to gatherings of major, White House-allied groups under the rubrics Unity '09 and Common Purpose.
"All that populist anger migrated over to the teabaggers and grew over there," she said. "That was a huge mistake and we're going to pay for it in 2010."
Hamsher says she's "not as cynical and disdainful of the Veal Pen as I sometimes seem." After all, she was asked, aren't they on the same side?
"Are we on the same side?" she asked. "They're on the side of the Democratic Party. We're an independent political force."