Jane Hamsher Leads Left Away from White House
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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."