MoveOn Ad Competition Ushers Bush Attacks Into the Mainstream

The Medium Is the Message

The ad selected as the funniest is more in your face. Called "If Parents Acted Like Bush," it portrays a loutish father forgetting to drive his daughter to school, invading her privacy on the toilet, and sleeping with another woman because "she's rich." Christopher Fink, an independent filmmaker in California, says he shot the spot in one day for about $50, casting friends and family members in the piece.

"This contest represents a whole new direction for the left," says filmmaker Michael Moore, who was one of the media "experts" recruited to help judge the ads. (Other judges included veteran Democratic consultants James Carville and Donna Brazile, Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg, along with Russell Simmons, Jack Black, Jessica Lange, Eddie Vedder, and Michael Stipe.) "The problem with liberals in the past is they've not been willing to go where the people are at, which is sitting on the couch eating Doritos and watching ads," says Moore. "The only way we're going to beat the right is at their own game."

Already, MoveOn's Voter Fund has raised more than $11 million to finance ads attacking the Bush Administration's polices in five battleground states (Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia). Pariser says most of the money has come through small donations ($25 on average) from MoveOn's 1.7 million U.S. members, though billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis, the founder of Progressive Insurance, have pledged $5 million in matching funds for every two dollars that MoveOn raises. That $11 million could easily double as the race for the White House intensifies, says Bill Zimmerman of Zimmerman & Markman, an ad firm that specializes in grassroots campaigns and created the battleground spots along with MoveOn's previous issue ads.

Details

MoveOn's growing financial heft is the real reason why the Republican Party is doing everything it can to undercut the group's influence. Last week when MoveOn launched an attacking Bush's Medicare plan (the ad shows an actor playing Bush literally pulling the rug out from under seniors), the Republican National Committee sent letters to all 66 stations where the ad was running, claiming that it falsely accused Bush of accepting money from drug companies, and demanded that it be removed. MoveOn sent the stations newspaper articles to substantiate its claims and the ad continues to run.

Meanwhile, the conservative website Rightmarch.com is soliciting grassroots donations to run radio spots and fullpage newspaper ads attacking MoveOn for posting the Hitler/Bush ad entries and calling on the Democratic candidates to repudiate the group's "bigoted hatemongering."

Of course, the Republicans didn't apologize when GOP allies ran attack ads during the Congressional elections that morphed disabled veteran Senator Max Cleland into Osama bin Laden, and turned Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle into Saddam Hussein in order to portray the Dems as being soft on terrorism. Nor did the RNC complain when the New York Post ran an op-ed by conservative columnist Ralph Peters comparing Howard Dean to Hitler.

Such skew from the right is now fueling MoveOn competitors to make and fund their own counterattacks. "Army of One," one of the more harshly toned ads that made it into MoveOn's finals, is already airing on Fox News in New Hampshire, thanks to the help of a deep-pocketed investor. Produced by members of TakeBackTheMedia.com, it blames the Bush administration for the unnecessary deaths of American soldiers and "slaughter" of 8,000 Iraqi civilians—a take that's sure to rile Bush fans. (The group has already been assailed for posting a tongue-in-cheek flash movie to its website called, "Bush Is Not a Nazi, So Stop Saying That.")

It remains to be seen whether such ads can translate advocacy into effective spin. While many of the commercials entered in the MoveOn contest may gratify Bush haters, they could also alienate swing voters and independents, that sacred middle that the Democrats must win over to defeat Bush.

And running ads, however hyped, is not the same thing as getting progressives and Democrats to solidify their ranks around a single candidate. But Pariser insists there's a value to elevating the voice of Bush's grassroots opposition into the mainstream. "The Republicans know that it's just as important to rally the base as the people who may or not agree with you. Activating your core voters is just as important as going after the swings."

Anger, the left is discovering, has its uses. As John Sayles, a godfather of independent filmmaking, told the gathering of MoveOn faithful on Monday: "It's not our responsibility to be polite. It's not our responsibility to be tasteful. Because the shit that's happening to us and in our name has got to stop."

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