James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Friday, August 20, 2004

Post election: Last chance for liberals

Yes, given the presidential election campaign, it’s hard to focus thought or effort beyond November.

But you know what, folks? Unless liberals start looking past the election and doing some serious planning, they’re going to get kicked in the teeth whether or not John Kerry wins the election – and is allowed to take office, which is another matter, as we’ve already seen.

Without question, very soon after the election there will be a bipartisan effort to crush 527 organizations. Those are outfits such as MoveOn, America Coming Together, ProChoice America, True Majority Action and a host of other liberal and special-cause organizations called 527s for the section of the federal tax code that covers them.

They are the vehicles which have, for the first time in decades, allowed liberals to be heard clearly and to have some real effect on a presidential election and a substantial number of congressional elections.

The right also could have used such organizations but, good and obedient little soldiers that they are, they fed their money and their efforts into the Republican Party and the various old Christian right organizations – top-down organizations, as befitting the right’s world view. Nine of the biggest ten 527s are funded and driven by liberals. Liberal 527s have raised at least $115 million for their causes so far, and most of that money directly or indirectly supports the Kerry campaign. The only substantial right-leaning 527, the Club for Growth, has at last report raised less than $5 million.

(That’s hardly a big surprise when you think about it for a few minutes. Liberals have been largely frozen out of the country’s political system for a long time. Then someone recognized the opportunity buried in the tax code, a few monied liberals kicked in to get things started and – Boom! The 527s were on the road, driven by both financial and philosophical contributions of their members.)

That a major attack on the 527s is coming is not speculation. It’s already in the works.

Well before the present campaign got into full swing, members of the Bush Administration and Congress from both sides of what used to be an aisle (now a very narrow and slight depression) asked the Federal Elections Commission to "examine" – read "step on" – the 527s. The commission declined to deal with the issue until after this fall’s election.

My take on that is that commissioners prefer to deal with a few, or even many, disgruntled members of Congress than to be the subject of the wrath of several million pissed off citizens who would believe, quite rightly, that to prevent the 527s from doing what they are doing would be to disenfranchise the organizations’ supporters. Could be that some of the smarter denizens of the Capitol also realized that a substantial number of their constituents would be after them with bolt cutters should they support an attack on the 527s.

The obvious and quite possibly correct assumption is that after the election, the citizen-powered organizations can be emasculated and not many people will notice or complain.
Not everyone is happy with the decision to wait, though. John McCain, the supposedly honorable nice guy of the Republican party, let the commission know just a few days ago that he is outraged by the FEC’s decision to let the 527s run until after the election. His position, now being adopted by other self-styled protectors of the democracy, is that the 527s are essentially just like the big-money PACs funded by the super rich and the corporations they control.

That’s nonsense, but it will sell to a whole lot of people, especially to those who lean right – which is to say practically everybody who holds public office these days, and all those folks who have been suckered by the long, long Republican public relations campaign and the corporate press into believing that the right is "moderate" and liberal is "far left."

In fact, a recent article in the StarTribune, my former employer in Minneapolis, said that most of the money raised by the organizations in question was raised by "left-leaning" 527s. The writer, Patricia Lopez – supposedly a reporter, not an analyst – regularly tags liberal-to-moderate organizations and individuals as "leftist" or "left-leaning." She’s not alone in such out-of-line characterization, of course. Happens in newspapers all over the country.

In the view of the newspapers and their masters it is "left-leaning" to insist on the constitutional right to differ with the current administration’s position on invading other nations, to fight to protect the environment, to demand that elections be run honestly, to try to preserve Social Security and public education -- to behave, in short, as though the Constitution of the United States is a meaningful document.

The attack on the 527s will be, as I said, bipartisan. Establishment Democrats in office and in the party organization are just as upset by the 527s as are their Republican colleagues.
Some of the Democrats may be more disgruntled, in fact, even though the Kerry campaign would have all but disappeared during the weeks between the close of the Democratic National Convention and the end of the Republican Convention that begins later this month. While Kerry was constrained from spending because of an absurd election rule, the Republicans could spend freely.

But the entrenched Democrats have been pushed some by the 527s and their members, and they don’t much like it. The Kerry campaign has been forced to acknowledge the concerns of the 527 members, and even to take some public stances that don’t go over well with the fat cats from whom the parties get the bulk of their money. And make no mistake, the party pros are far more comfortable with the fat cats than they are with the likes of you and me.

Some Democratic members of Congress also are feeling heat from liberal constituents who now have substantial piles of cash to back their positions and who are feeling their oats. Some of those office-holders probably are hearing from constituents who are telling them to shape up or move over.

(An aside: My own congressman occupies what could be the safest Democratic seat in all of the United States. He’s been in office since Methuselah was an infant. He votes correctly, but he hasn’t got off his backside to actually fight for anything in at least a decade. I’ve suggested that he should go, and I’m hoping to build a campaign to pursuade him to do just that.)

Party officers – the guys who turn party offices into permanent sinecures – also must hate the 527s. They’re used to calling the shots, when they bother to do anything other than shmooze with corporate executives, and now some of those terrible 527 people are either ignoring them or telling them what they should be doing.

Mostly, the party organization is bypassed in favor of direct action. The 527s are conducting voter registration campaigns, raising more money that the party in many areas, organizing demonstrations against Bush campaigners, directly fighting the attacks on Kerry’s Vietnam record, and raising issues and saying how they should be dealt with. Some of the organizations are telling members of Congress what’s important and what to do – take care of children, health care and the environment rather than providing the rich with more tax cuts, dump Bush’s foolish missile defense boondoggle, come clean on energy policy, and more. And if the people in Congress don’t want to listen, the 527 members bombard them with letters, emails and telephone calls.

That goes over big with stuffy party officials and lazy, gutless Congressmen, you betcha.

So the attack is coming. The FEC will try to do the bidding of the annoyed government and party officials – and they will do it unless the 527s and their millions of members are prepared to fight for their own existence even harder than they are fighting for other causes right now.

If the 527s go, America’s liberals will be relegated to the sidelines again – and perhaps forever.