In the season of their discontent -- out of power and on the defensive -- Democrats are looking for inspiration and leadership. A bunch of them found it yesterday in the unassuming figure of Wes Boyd, the man who gave America the flying toaster.
Boyd and his wife, Joan Blades, made a fortune with their winged-appliance computer screen savers. Then, in 1998, appalled by the impeachment struggle in Washington, the Californians founded MoveOn.org, a modest online petition effort that has grown into the hottest political organization in American progressive circles.
From an initial e-mail to about 300 friends, MoveOn has, five years later, a "membership" of 1.4 million Americans, plus 700,000 more people outside the country. The MoveOn political action committee has raised $6.5 million for like-minded candidates and has hopes of doubling that amount in this election cycle. MoveOn generated a million phone calls and e-mails to Congress protesting the Iraq war and catalyzed thousands of candlelight vigils around the world. "Even we were shocked by the power of this," Boyd said. "We were bowled over."
The entire organization has four paid employees.
Boyd was a featured speaker yesterday at the opening session of a major gathering of progressive -- the preferred term these days on the political left -- activists at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Round-faced, soft-spoken and bespectacled, Boyd had the standing-room-only crowd in the palm of his hand even before he started talking. The story of his organization is one of the few clear successes lately in a party that took a drubbing last November and faces an uphill battle against a popular president.
As Ellen Malcolm, founder and president of EMILY's List -- the largest PAC in the country -- put it, these are "dire times" for Democrats.
The Take Back America conference, which continues today and Friday, was organized to try to raise hopes that President Bush can be beaten next November, and to convince other Democrats that a vigorously liberal agenda is the way to do it. Boyd used his group's momentum to argue that there is plenty of grass-roots support for progressive ideas -- if only Democrats will have the courage to push them.
"The primary way to build trust is to consistently fight for things that people care about," Boyd told his audience. Later, in an interview, he added that progressive Democrats need to present an agenda beyond simple opposition to the Bush administration. The next big MoveOn project is designed to develop new ideas from the ground up. "We need to stop playing defense," he said.
Conference organizers are calling on liberal groups across the country to cooperate on strategy and coordinate their efforts to "challenge the radical and destructive agenda of the Bush administration," in the words of Robert Borosage, director of the Campaign for America's Future.
But the meeting is also designed to rally the left against the Democratic Party's more centrist elements as the battle heats up to choose a presidential nominee. Borosage and others object to party strategists who believe Democrats must moderate their positions on war, taxes, universal health care and other key issues if they want to win the swing votes that will decide the 2004 election.
"Those who advise Democrats to tuck their tails and bite their tongues are simply wrong," Borosage said to a wave of applause.
In response, the party's leading centrist group, the Democratic Leadership Council, issued a sly welcome to the progressive conferees, proposing that the rival factions of the party share "that Ben & Jerry's ice cream and those Newman's organic cookies. Yum."
"We cannot regain the White House," the DLC said, "if we deepen, rather than rebut, the lingering doubt . . . that too many Americans don't much trust us to protect them against terrorists and other threats to our national security. We're not convinced that your panel on 'Next Stages for the Peace Movement' will reassure the country on this count."
Wes Boyd disagreed. As a newcomer to politics, he doesn't spend much time rehashing the internecine rivalries that have anguished the Democratic Party since the rise of the New Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He believes that grass-roots America is ready to support a liberal agenda if only "someone will get out and lead." Boyd counsels presidential candidates to spend less time in closed-door meetings with major donors and more time in direct contact with voters.
The exponential growth of MoveOn.org, Boyd told the conference, is proof that money and support will flow to politicians willing to stake out strong and risky positions. "Every time we did something, every time we showed leadership, our membership went up." The key to winning, he said, "is: lead, for God's sake."
More than 1,000 people registered for the conference, according to Eric Hauser, who helped organize the event -- which makes it "the biggest gathering of progressives in at least 20 years." Today, they will hear speeches -- live or on videotape -- from seven of the nine Democratic presidential candidates.
After his speech, Boyd was mobbed by admirers. He had a relaxed way of occupying the center of attention; more than one listener wondered how long it would be before the first Wes Boyd-for-High Office campaign.
"That is an amazing concept," he said later. "That is the absolute last thing I am ever going to do."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company