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April 23, 2007

What was MoveOn Thinking?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I actually found McCain's "Bomb-Bomb-Iran" joke to be slightly funny (key word: slightly). It really does sound like "Barbara Ann," the classic Beach Boys tune. In any case, MoveOn was sufficiently offended to air an anti-McCain attack ad. At first, I thought to myself, why are they wasting their money on this so early in the primary campaign? Particularly when Andy Bowers and John Dickerson make the valid point that the ad is likely to backfire (McCain can use the ad to burnish his tough-guy credentials to conservative audiences). But then it sort of made sense to me: this is part of MoveOn's strategy to hype up McCain to conservative voters to help him beat Giuliani in the primaries. McCain, unlike Giuliani, would stand little chance against Clinton, Obama, Edwards. Giuliani, on the other hand, would probably give the democratic nominee a serious run for his/her money.


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We shouldn't be too credulous about the supposed strategic thinking of membership-based organizations like MoveOn.

One thing all such organizations share is the need to show their members (and especially their major donors) that the organization is busy, active, and -- to use the phrase now fashionable in politics -- "fighting" for what its members believe in. A television ad against a prominent supporter of administration policy in Iraq like McCain meets that need admirably for MoveOn; whether the ad accomplishes anything else is almost irrelevant.

We can see the same imperative driving groups like the National Rifle Association when it invents new gun rights causes, like state legislation to require businesses to let employees keep guns in the cars they park on company property. Feminist groups are now trying to revive the Equal Rights Amendment; the Imus affair was a godsend for the Rainbow Coalition. Organizations like these and the causes they sponsor are almost always covered at their face value by the mainstream media, and to be sure they sometimes do employ people who genuinely believe all the things they say. Major membership-based organizations keep their members, though, not by fighting but by "fighting": showing that they are busy, speaking up against the people their members dislike, making a display. To a remarkable degree they have therefore started to act a lot like your typical Congressman. It is therefore unwise to think of such organizations as being reliably on the level, or to presume that their activity is motivated by a deep strategic design.

The "Bomb Iran" take off was not his original thinking, in case you're wondering. It was on the radio (supposedly Steve Dahl made it popular, but it's not listed on his wikipedia article, so that can't be true) during the Iran hostage situation.

I don't think the country wants to bomb Iran and that's why they ran the ad. No more, no less.

Mikebdot hit the nail on the head.

Whatever else you want to say about moveone and like-minded bloggers, it's plain that their fundamental political views are simple and open:

The Iraq war was a terrible blunder; the American people now recognize this, which is why the war is so unpopular; hammering on the recklessness of the President and his enablers is good politics and good policy, and it should be done as often as possible.

That's about it. There are wrinkles and corollaries, but that's the core.

From that point of view, it's a straight line to the "bomb Iran" video. I'd add, I think the quote makes a pretty favorable frame for the debate. It encapsulates the astonishingly naive view apparently still heard in places where the true believers congregate that American military power can accomplish absolutely anything and we must only dare to use it to be great -- a view Matthew Yglesias has memorably called the "Green Lantern theory of politics."

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