Walking a Fine Line Online
Forget Republicans. Democrats are struggling to satisfy Net activists on the left
Laboring to produce an Iraq bill that will pick up some Republican support, congressional Democrats must also worry about backing from another constituency: the online activists who are becoming the voice of their party's base. With House passage of a bill last week to authorize Iraq war funds on a half-now, half-later schedule, the liberal MoveOn.org is skeptical. Says Executive Director Eli Pariser: "Any money for the Iraq war should come with a hard-and-fast deadline for ending it."
That's going to be tough, since President Bush vetoed the earlier funding bill over its withdrawal deadline. But for all the support the so-called netroots provide-MoveOn alone claims 3.3 million members and raised $25 million in 2006 to help wrest control of the House from Republicans-Democrats are learning that they are not easily placated. And not just when it comes to the war. When Barack Obama's presidential campaign recently took over apage on the social-networking site MySpace that had been run by a freelance supporter, cyberliberals rebelled. Starting from scratch, the Obama-run page has signed up 60,000 "friends," while the earlier page had boasted 160,000. The campaign "quashed not only my right to have this profile," the Obama MySpace page founder blogged, "but the very hope that inspired me to build it."
High-wire act. As Democrats work to harness the power of an online community that could be their greatest asset since organized labor, they are hitting some unexpected bumps. "Democrats walk a fine line in creating a real open community online and using it as another messaging and marketing tool," says Julie Barko Germany of the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet at George Washington University. "You can't control the netroots. They want to be their own entity." Democrats must balance that entity's demands with the need to maintain support from the swing voters who helped return them to power last fall and who may decide the next presidential election. Managing those competing goals will make for a political high-wire act in the weeks to come.
Since the president announced his Iraq "surge" plan in January, congressional leaders have been closely coordinating with antiwar groups in opposing it. That includes MoveOn, founded in 1998 to denounce the impeachment of President Clinton. The group promotes causes like universal healthcare and tackling global warming, but opposing the Iraq war is its top priority. Until now, antiwar groups have been supportive of Democrats, even as leaders on Capitol Hill declined to back measures like troop caps or an immediate cutoff of war funds. The netroots "have been surprisingly close to what we've been advocating," says Matt Bennett of the centrist Democratic group Third Way.
For congressional Democrats, though, the current fight over war funds is a prelude to a bigger debate this fall. That's when Congress will take up the administration's war funding requests for 2008 and when Democrats believe many Republicans will break with the White House and push for an end to the war. "We're in a marathon, and we've just rounded the first bend," says a Democratic House aide of the current war supplemental bill.