I was on MSNBC with Alex Witt commenting on today’s rally in Washington DC. It will inevitably be compared to Glenn Beck’s rally, but that’s not really fair. The Beck rally represented the pinnacle of a well-funded 2 year plan to organize the tea parties by building up local groups around the country, pumping out a consistent message through right wing media outlets like Fox News, and promoting celebrities like Glenn Beck.
Of course they can produce a hundred thousand people at the mall. But that kind of coordinated effort doesn’t spring up overnight.
Last year, in the midst of the AIG bonus scandal and shortly before the big Tax Day Tea Party on April 15, a group called A New Way Forward tried to organize progressive demonstrations in 80 cities across the country. One of the chief organizers was Tiffiny Cheng, who reached out to me, and we did our best to help them promote it. Marcy and I appeared at rallys in Michigan and DC. Tiffiny and others at ANWF worked their butts off and did an amazing job, but they got no help from the institutional players.
The unions and other big liberal groups sat it out because the White House didn’t want them organizing against Wall Street. Even though the unions in particular had well-developed campaigns under way targeting banks, hedge funds and private equity groups, the White House was trying to get Wall Street to participate in its PPIP program. After a meeting at the White House with Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein and others where they basically told Obama they wouldn’t play ball unless the Democrats toned down their anti-bank rhetoric, the word went out that the liberal groups should put a sock in it.
I remember standing out there in the rain on April 11 in front of the White House with Bill Greider, David Swanson and a handful of people from Code Pink and thinking “we are so screwed.” While Fox News was harvesting anti-bank rage 24/7, the unions were getting phone calls from the White House telling them to stop anti-bank campaigns that they already had underway. And they did.
I’ve written many, many times about how this was the moment when the alarm bells went off for me. I started writing about the “veal pen,” and how dangerous it was for liberal groups to subvert the interests of their own members to the political objectives of the Democratic party. Ultimately, the banks never participated in the PPIP program anyway. They all followed Jamie Dimon’s lead after he casually waved his hand and said he wasn’t going to play.
We’re seeing the direct result of those poor decisions by veal pen groups today. You can’t cede the battleground to the Tea Parties when rage is at its peak and think you can come in a year and a half later and compete. During the AIG bonus scandal, it was like somebody tossed a pile of money in the air, and that “money” was public outrage. The only ones who scrambled for it were Fox News, Freedomworks and Americans for Prosperity. When people wanted to know what they could do, the only ones who were giving them an answer to that question were on the right.
Of course, the message of the Tea Parties is incoherent. You would have to have lived under a rock for the 8 years Bush was in office to think that the GOP was going to put the screws to Wall Street. CNN recently did a poll and found that the most popular 2012 candidate among those who identify with the Tea Party is Mitt Romney. Really? The guy from Bain Capital is going to save us from the banks? Who believes that?
With today’s rally, the liberal groups are trying to present their message as an answer to public discontent. But there’s no way they can hope to compete with the numbers of people that the right could turn out for the Beck rally, because they haven’t laid the groundwork. There will be other opportunities — the problem with the banks is not going away any time soon, and certainly not if there’s a speaker Boehner. But the time to scramble is when someone throws the money in the air. And if liberal groups want Americans to hear their message, they’ve got to be fearless and authentic about presenting it.