I'd gone to a couple of MoveOn anti-Iraq War events in the past, but it wasn't until last week that I actually attended my first MoveOn meeting. The past events seemed modestly successful, but left me unsure of the organization's capacity outside of cyberspace. This meeting, on the other hand, was downright impressive. There were about a hundred people gathered at a downtown San Francisco restaurant. The group was mostly young, probably to be expected since the event was initially organized by the Young Democrats and only opened to oldsters when other meetings rapidly filled up. And, according to MoveOn, it was just one of more than 1,000 events around the country that night. If only the content had matched the organization.
The event ran according to a tight script – a recorded MoveOn introduction and instructions, with interruptions for conversation on directed topics. And while this highly structured format did not allow for real breadth of expression of opinion, it did serve the purpose of keeping the event on course and on a neat hour-and-a-half schedule. No one was likely to walk away swearing off MoveOn meetings because they didn't get to the point. The point was a "Real Voices for Change" campaign that would involve taking thousands of pictures of people holding signs that, in the words of a MoveOn fund appeal, would "put Congress on notice that we expect them to help pass Obama's bold agenda.
"All of Obama's agenda?" I wondered. Including his proposal to send 7,000 additional troops to Afghanistan? Or the "plans to increase the size of the Army by 65,000 troops and the Marines by 27,000 troops" in the words of his website? And which bold agenda? The pre-election plan to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy or the post election economic plan that reportedly no longer includes their repeal, despite the arguably greater current need for the revenue?
Well, probably those parts of the agenda won't make it into the photos on the website, but even the ones that have cry out for more. Like the signs that say "I stand with Obama for an end to the war in Iraq" – do the MoveOn members holding them really want sixteen to eighteen more months of combat troops followed by an American military presence continuing indefinitely, as his current plan calls for? I'm guessing a lot of people attending the meetings and getting the e-mail were a lot closer to the more get-out-ASAP positions that Kucinich, Gravel, Richardson, or even Edwards were arguing way back when. Have they really changed their minds on that?
No one's asked.
Or the pictures with the "I stand with Obama for Health Care" signs. I'm guessing there's a lot of people out there who helped put Obama over the top who think his health care plan could use some improving. The smart betting money may not be on passing a single payer plan right away, but don't we still need to remind Congress that in these economic times, we can't afford to be diverting our health care dollars into the redundant and wasteful private health insurance industry boondoggle? And the "I stand with Obama for Clean Energy" sign holders – might they not want to get a clearer idea where the President-elect stands on nuclear power before writing him a blank check?
The real question is who's supporting whose agenda? MoveOn is an organization of potentially immense influence – the "Real Voices for Change" meetings alone demonstrated that. And were they to poll their members on what they wanted to see in an Iraq withdrawal plan, a health care plan, or a clean energy plan, the organization might be able to throw valuable ideas into the mix that would be quite different from the advice Obama will get from the centrist Cabinet he is in the process of assembling.
Whether you think Obama's the second coming of FDR or Abraham Lincoln, or whether you consider him comfortably within the Carter-Mondale-Clinton-Gore-Kerry tradition, we should be able to agree that he needs agitators, not cheerleaders. Let's not allow all the deals to be sealed between the Democratic Wall Street types and the Republican Wall Street types. If MoveOn really wants to make something happen, it should make Obama look moderate (which shouldn't be awfully hard) by letting Congress know that there are millions of us out there who want far more than he's talking about. And who knows, if there's enough of us, maybe he will too.
Besides, we should be a bit embarrassed by this kind of thing. If we could just step out of our shoes long enough to imagine how we would view Bush or Reagan supporters cheering their man on to do whatever was on his agenda – no questions asked -- we might get an idea of how foolish this blind boosterism looks to the non-believers.
MoveOn has an impressive decade under its belt. It could have an even more important one in front of it – but not if it resigns itself to handing out pom-poms.