BERKELEY, Calif. — If the Republican National Committee issued an FBI-style “most wanted” list, liberal activist Wes Boyd would probably rank near the top.
The GOP has been trying to shut down one of Boyd’s projects, the MoveOn.org Voter Fund — the soft-money arm of the Internet-based advocacy group that Boyd founded in 1998 with his wife, Joan Blades.
“MoveOn.org is a huge threat and has hurt the president,” Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman told a Washington-based political newspaper, The Hill.
The voter fund has raised $17 million since October, and it and the new MoveOn Political Action Committee have been running television ads attacking President Bush in battleground states. One spot uses the words of former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke to condemn Bush’s performance in the war on terrorism; another shows a lie detector jumping as Bush speaks about Iraq. Such spots have made MoveOn a prominent target of the RNC and the Bush campaign, which recently tried to get the Federal Election Commission to clamp down on soft-money issues groups — called 527s after the provision of the tax code that created them — claiming they act in violation of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws.
Boyd said he developed MoveOn to empower disaffected liberal voters so that politics could be “more two-way than top-down, about conversations, not ‘let me tell you,’” and he said the Republican assault is rattling his organization, which has 1.7 million online “members” but few paid staffers.
“We’re trying to play both games at once. It’s almost a schizophrenic existence,” Boyd told the Forward in an interview here in the left-leaning Bay Area city he calls home. “We’re trying to bring messages from our base, but we get attacks from [chairman] Ed Gillespie at the RNC, and we have to respond in one news cycle or we’re screwed.”
The Republicans propose regulations that would force the 527s — most of which have sprung up on the Democratic side — to register as political action committees, which would limit the amount of contributions they take in from individuals to $5,000. Republicans also accuse 527s of unlawful coordination with the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Last week, the 527s scored a victory, or at least a reprieve: After hearings on the matter, several FEC commissioners indicated that they needed more time to study the matter, and therefore were unlikely to regulate them, at least for this election cycle.
That result heartened all sorts of advocacy organizations, including many Jewish not-for-profits — which argued that the Republican-proposed regulation would have outlawed their own issues campaigns and voter mobilization drives. A representative of one Jewish group, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center — a strong supporter of campaign finance reform — testified at the hearings that the 527s shouldn’t be regulated now, citing “lack of specific evidence of corruption.”
Boyd is a mild-looking man of 43 with pale skin, spectacles and a receding hairline, dressed California casual in brown corduroys — he hardly presents the picture of the dangerous radical that supporters of the president try to paint. His patter comes off as equal parts inspiration and idealism, with occasional flashes of incisive Silicon Valley executive: Boyd made a fortune selling the software company he developed, Berkeley Systems, best known for its “flying toaster” screensaver.
As a businessman, he takes swings at the Democrats, saying that many of their operatives lack talent and are “not great at what they do.” The GOP, he said, “has more going on the talent side because it has an intimate connection to the business world.”
For all the GOP fulminations about MoveOn’s “coordination” with the Kerry campaign — which just hired MoveOn’s special projects director, Zack Exley, as its director of online communications — Boyd can’t name any issues on which he wants the campaign to spend more energy. “I haven’t focused as much as I should on the Kerry campaign,” he acknowledged, vowing “to listen more closely.”
Boyd disdains the traditional Washington politicking of both parties with its focus on demographics –– including region and religion.
“To think of the United States as stereotypical constituencies that you can slice and dice and pander to, I find it offensive,” he said.
Boyd said MoveOn was unlikely to take positions on the Middle East conflict — an area where MoveOn’s liberal constituency would likely clash with mainstream Jewish organizations. “We haven’t gone there because it’s so complicated,” he said, adding, “We go where there’s unity.”
Boyd hasn’t decided whether he’ll attend the Democratic National Convention this summer, though he said he’s leaning against it.
He’d be forgiven if he said he’s too busy to go: MoveOn has its fingers in quite a few pies. The group published a compendium of essays, “MoveOn’s 50 Ways To Love Your Country,” that has hovered at the top of best seller lists since its debut last month, and is spearheading a campaign calling on Congress to censure the president for what it says was “a campaign of misinformation, of cherry-picking and distorting intelligence, of hype and hysteria that led America into an unnecessary war.”
But the television ads, by far, have been the most controversial of the group’s initiatives. MoveOn ran a contest, Bushin30seconds, asking grassroots activists to develop ads, creating a kerfuffle several months ago when two of the more than 1,500 videos submitted compared Bush to Hitler. A red-faced Boyd apologized when the videos weren’t screened out from his Web site. Then, CBS rejected the winning Bushin30seconds ads from its Super Bowl broadcast. More recently, Clarke, the dissident terrorism adviser, complained loudly when MoveOn used his words.
The ads are controversial in another way. The question: Do they work? New Republic journalist Ryan Lizza called the ads “the most creative and visually arresting political ads of the season” in New York magazine. Erik Smith, the executive director of another 527, the Media Fund, said the MoveOn ads “have produced a favorable result for Democrats in the five states where they focused their efforts.” Boyd said his pollster Stanley Greenberg has “tested the ads deeply” in the battleground states and found that they “moved people significantly.”
The Bush-Cheney team scoffs at that notion. “I don’t think a lot of what MoveOn.org has done has been very effective,” Bush’s chief strategist, Matthew Dowd, said, calling the ads “personalized attacks on the president… unrelated to any specific debate.”
“I’m confident voters will filter it out,” he added.
Meanwhile, CBSNews.com reported last week that the Kerry campaign also “worries that the MoveOn ads, which have jazzed the Democratic base, may be so highly personal and partisan that they could turn off swing voters.”
So why are Republicans spending so much energy trying to stop Wes Boyd?