Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Left-wing activists, energized by what they see as an incompetent and ultraconservative Bush administration, have taken their fight to the Internet, the best-seller lists and pop culture, mirroring the rise of conservative media and talk radio during the Clinton years.

The Web site Moveon.org, which started modestly in 1998 to oppose the impeachment of President Clinton, is now a leading light in cyberspace for anti-Bush activists.

The Web site claims to have 3 million members across the country and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for anti-Bush ads in the largest U.S. newspapers.

Former Vice President Al Gore asked the group to sponsor an anti-Bush speech he delivered at New York University on Aug. 7 in which he accused Mr. Bush of leading the nation to war under “false impressions.” Moveon.org followed that up by paying $102,000 to run a full-page ad in The New York Times last week reprinting parts of Mr. Gore’s speech.

Sources involved with Moveon.org said the group recently launched a $1 million campaign to accuse the Bush administration of “trying to disenfranchise minority voters” in Texas through a Republican plan to redraw congressional districts.

“It’s refreshing that Democrats are asking for accountability of this president,” said Tony Welch, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “The media is more afraid to do what its job is, which is to ask questions. If they do that for Republicans and Democrats, then we’re fine.”

Aside from helping mobilize the Democratic Party, liberal outrage aimed at President Bush has also become big business.

Liberal humorist Al Franken’s book “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right” holds the No. 1 nonfiction spot on the New York Times best-sellers list and also tops sales at Amazon.com.

Leftist activist Michael Moore’s documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” a film that excoriates conservatives and the “gun culture,” won an Academy Award, and Mr. Moore’s book “Stupid White Men” was the top-selling nonfiction book of 2002.

The memoir “Living History” by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, has been hailed as the definitive defense of the Clinton presidency. It was a runaway best seller and continues to linger in the New York Times’ top-five list.

Country music artists the Dixie Chicks made headlines in the spring for saying while onstage overseas that they were ashamed to be from the same state as Mr. Bush. The angry backlash by Bush supporters at home was immediate and loud but the flap ultimately didn’t hurt the group’s career.

The Dixie Chicks recently wrapped up the top-grossing North American tour of the year with $61 million in ticket sales.

Outspoken Bush critic Janeane Garofalo has enjoyed a successful career as an actress and comedian. She and Mr. Franken both sat in on the left side of CNN’s political shout-fest “Crossfire,” a sign that sharp-tongued opposition to the president has attracted the attention of the mainstream news media.

On a single episode of “Crossfire” last week, Miss Garofalo held the president “responsible” for the bombing of the U.N. compound in Iraq, claimed he perpetuated a “lie that brought us into war in Iraq,” called the Bush administration “radically corrupt,” and likened the USA Patriot Act — passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress to fight terrorism — “a conspiracy of the 43rd Reich.”

As successful as the left has been with books and the Internet, Mr. Welch said it pales in comparison to the rise of conservative talk radio, which was the engine that drove criticism of President Clinton during his two terms.

“I think there is real movement on the Democratic side,” Mr. Welch said. “But frankly I don’t think we’re close to where we were in the 1990s when the legions of far-right folks put Clinton and his family under attack every single day.

“We can’t match that yet. It’s not at the same level,” Mr. Welch said.

But some see signs that it might be getting close.

The Internet is awash in Web sites dedicated to mocking President Bush. Some sites focus on substantive discussions of what Mr. Bush’s ideological opposites consider wrongheaded policies. Others cast him as a danger to society, a man obsessed with power who is violating the Constitution.

One site, fearbush.com, features “peace rally” posters that dress Mr. Bush in a Nazi uniform, complete with Adolf Hitler’s distinctive mustache. Bushbodycount.com has assembled a list of people it says the Bush family has killed to increase its fortune.

While many of these corners of the Internet are obscure and their claims extreme, others have connections to mainstream media. Counterpunch.com, a popular liberal Web site run by syndicated columnist Alexander Cockburn, has published columns that compare Mr. Bush to Hitler, conceding only that “Bush is simply not the orator that Hitler was.”

Political strategist Brian Lunde, who aligns himself with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said such sentiments have been growing in the party’s grass roots since the contested 2000 presidential election.

“Anger is the primary motivation right now on the left,” Mr. Lunde said, citing that passion is a factor in the successful campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has parlayed an antiwar message to rise from obscurity to front-runner status for his party’s presidential nomination.

Mr. Dean has also used the Internet to raise at least $10 million for his campaign, and the money keeps rolling in.

Democrats “are lurching to the left, where the emotion is,” Mr. Lunde said. “But turning up the volume doesn’t make their message more persuasive to independent voters.”

Jonathan Chait, a senior editor at the New Republic, said that liberals who express nothing but hatred for the president are destroying their credibility as legitimate critics because they are abandoning principle.

“I certainly think there’s a way that hatred of Bush can be distorting in that you often see people who reflexively oppose everything that Bush is for,” said Mr. Chait, who is developing an article on “Bush hatred” for the next edition of his magazine. “Anti-Bushism is leading Democrats in a direction that they’d never been to before.”

For instance, liberals now say that “the war in Iraq can never be legitimate” because it did not have the explicit authority of the United Nations Security Council, Mr. Chait said.

“But that was a foreign concept to most liberals three or four years ago,” he added, explaining that liberals didn’t object when Mr. Clinton bombed Yugoslavia over ethnic cleansing in Kosovo without first clearing it with the United Nations.

“Liberals are starting to imagine that they believed something all along when they really only believe it because it’s the opposite of what Bush believes,” he said.

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