Freedom Watch: Pushing Buttons and Raising Millions

OAKLAND, California -- Over the past couple of years, a number of right wing groups have been contending for the unofficial designation of the conservative version of, the liberal grassroots lobbying organization. These days, Freedom's Watch appears to have a leg up on them all.

The Washington-based non-profit organization founded last year by a group of former White House aides and a gaggle of wealthy Bush supporters is making its presence known, building a powerful organizational infrastructure, and may wind up spending as much as a quarter of a billion dollars in this year's presidential election and congressional races.

Last summer, just before General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were scheduled to testify before Congress on the situation in Iraq, Freedom's Watch launched a 15-million-dollar advertising campaign to drum up public support for President George W. Bush's surge. While the public's perception of the occupation of Iraq didn't dramatically change, nevertheless Freedom's Watch impacted the discussion.

In the fall, Freedom's Watch turned its attention to Iran: In late September, the group ran a newspaper advertisement calling Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 'a terrorist'.

'If Hitler's warnings were heeded when he wrote 'Mein Kampf,' he could have been stopped,' Bradley Blakeman, the president of Freedom's Watch and a former assistant to President Bush, told the New York Times. 'Ahmadinejad is giving all the same kind of warning signs to us, and the region -- he wants the destruction of the United States and the destruction of Israel.'

In late October, the group sponsored a forum on Iran which featured several 'experts' on Middle East policy from the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington-based think tank that is the home of many neoconservative architects of the war in Iraq.

In December, Freedom's Watch turned its attention to immigration, running a television ad attacking the Democratic Party's candidate in a special congressional election in northern Ohio.

The ad was characterized by the Washington Post as 'aggressively negative'. 'Bankrolled largely by Sheldon G. Adelson, a Las Vegas casino executive who last year pledged an unprecedented 200 million dollars to Jewish and Israeli causes, who wrote an 80,000-dollar check to Freedom's Watch on Dec. 7, according to Federal Election Commission documents, just four days before the election that gave Republican Robert Latta the House seat representing the district around Bowling Green,' the Post reported.

According to the newspaper, 'Behind a blood-red foreground, the group's ad showed Latinos hurrying under fences and being frisked by police as a narrator accused Democratic candidate Robin Weirauch and 'liberals in Congress' of supporting free health care for illegal immigrants.'

'Freedom's Watch is the latest of several conservative groups getting into the act of pushing anti-immigrant extremism for perceived political gain,' Devin Burghart, director of the Centre for New Community's Building Democracy Initiative, told IPS. 'After its pro-war ad campaigns failed to move the American people, Freedom's Watch drifted to what may be the most divisive and volatile issue on the campaign trail this year -- nativism -- with its recent ads in the Ohio congressional election.'

Burghart pointed out that the fact that Freedom's Watch 'has jumped onto the nativism bandwagon is one more indicator that anti-immigrant politics has become the new frontline of the culture war. It's an early warning signal of just how strongly some GOP-allies are planning on wielding nativism as a divisive weapon in the 2008 election cycle.'

'We're a permanent political operation here in town. We're not going to be Johnny One Note,' Joe Eule, the group's executive director, told the Washington Post.

According to the newspaper, Freedom's Watch staff of 20 'will be more than doubled in the coming months'; communications will be run by Ed Patru, 'the message chief for House Republicans,' who was recently lured 'away from Capitol Hill'; and the group's headquarters 'above the posh Caucus Room restaurant [in] downtown [Washington], are being outfitted with a modern studio so the staff can send ads to TV and radio stations across the country on a moment's notice.'

This is one group that will not experience financial difficulties: According to the Post, 'While initial reports suggested a budget of $200 million, people who have talked to the group in recent weeks say the figure is closer to $250 million, more than double the amount spent by the largest independent liberal groups in the 2004 election cycle.'

'There is a sense among those contributing to Freedom's Watch that MoveOn powerfully filled a void in the left, that rallied support in the left, that raised money from the left, that mobilized the left,' Ari Fleischer, a former Bush press secretary and a Freedom's Watch founder, told the Post.

'Freedom's Watch is raking in huge donations from a few donors, a model that other federally sanctioned campaign groups cannot follow, because donation sizes are limited by law,' John Stauber, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, told IPS.

'And like MoveOn, Freedom's Watch intends to augment that approach with a grass-roots fundraising model that energizes a base of supporters as it brings in money,' he said.

Freedom's Watch is headed by Blakeman, Mel Sembler, a millionaire former Bush ambassador to Italy, and Fleischer. Much of its financial support so far has come from Sembler and billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the sixth richest person in the world.

Freedom's Watch's website states that it 'was formed to be the conservative voice fighting for mainstream conservative principles -- today, tomorrow, and for generations to come. We engage in grassroots lobbying, education and information campaigns, and issue advocacy to further our goals and objectives. We create coalitions and collaborate with like-minded groups and individuals to further our common goals.'

Fleischer told the Post that the group wasn't 'broadening' its agenda. 'We said prosperity through free enterprise and domestic issues were going to be on the agenda. But something had to come first, and what came first was the 'surge' and the president's policies in Iraq.'

'Freedom's Watch is being quite transparent about its motives in running anti-immigrant ads,' John Stauber pointed out. 'It's all about hot button issues that will turn out the Republican base and defeat Democrats. Obviously, they see immigration as such a weapon. Neoconservatives have shown themselves able to build strange bedfellow coalitions in the past, such as with conservative Christian fundamentalists. Ari Fleischer and his cohorts are all about winning, by any means necessary.'

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column 'Conservative Watch' documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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