Ever since the November elections, progressive activists have been focusing on their next goal: to purge some of the more moderate Democratic congress members, especially those who live in reliably liberal districts. No one has taken more heat than East Bay Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, whom a US News and World Report correspondent recently dubbed the “second most-disliked Democrat.” Last week, these forces took their first serious stab at intimidating her — and it was an awkward flop.
On January 22, Democratic Party activist Steve Rosenthal announced the birth of Working For Us, a new Political Action Committee that would expose moderate Democrats to public shame, and even help run progressive primary challengers against the three “worst offenders.” As the former political director of the AFL-CIO and cofounder of America Coming Together, Rosenthal carries a lot of weight. And the people sitting on his board of directors included officials from the Service Employees International Union and trial lawyers’ group American Association for Justice as well as Berkeley-based Daily Kos guru Markos Moulitsas Zúniga. Rosenthal raised $200,000 in a month, and promised to amass a war chest of $3 million by 2008. He even created a worst offenders list, topped by Tauscher. As he wrote in the Huffington Post, “those who vote against the progressive agenda should consider themselves warned.”
The story got picked up by the Washington Post and Associated Press wire, Beltway tongues started wagging — and the blowback kicked in. Linda Lipsen, a vice president at the American Association for Justice, read the press accounts and called Rosenthal, telling him that she couldn’t serve on his board after all. “We’re not on the board,” she says. “The misunderstanding was on our part. … As to Ellen Tauscher, we support Ellen Tauscher.”
Within 48 hours, Rosenthal had erased every name from his offenders’ list. Confused reporters from the Express and the Oakland Tribune repeatedly called him for comment, but he was AWOL for two days. Finally, he called and apologized for the delay. “I’m dodging you,” he joked.
Everyone had gotten his project wrong, Rosenthal said. Tauscher and the others were named merely as a stunt to start his group with a bang, but once the public was paying attention, he pulled their names to focus on the issues. “We used the three members that were up for starters to explain who we are, and frankly to show that we intend to hold people accountable,” Rosenthal said. “We never said from the beginning that these were ‘targets’ of ours.”
Rosenthal can spin this any way he wants, but someone felt a lot of heat, and fast. What appeared in the first 24 hours to be a new, aggressive effort to replicate the libertarian Club for Growth muscle quickly fizzled into a tepid attempt at damage control. This is hardly an auspicious beginning for the Netroots campaign against Tauscher, and it shows that for all their online anguish, getting rid of the congresswoman will be a lot tougher than people think.
Still, Moulitsas is nothing if not confident. The man who made Joe Lieberman’s life hard, and whose Berkeley coreligionists helped take down Richard Pombo, maintains that Tauscher has seriously disenchanted her constituents, and says she’ll find herself out of a job if she doesn’t watch her back. “Tauscher is in trouble not because Working For Us PAC or Daily Kos has taken an interest in the race,” he says. “The reason is that so many activists at the local and grassroots level have decided that Ellen Tauscher does not represent them.”
According to Moulitsas, any future campaign would hit Tauscher from three sides. The PAC’s union connections would provide campaign volunteers and “boots on the ground.” MoveOn.org would raise a bundle for her opponent, and Web sites like Daily Kos would amplify information about her “corporate agenda.”
“There are some serious skills that are being brought in,” Moulitsas adds. “What we can’t offer are the incumbency and the name recognition that brings. The assumption in the media is that they’re unbeatable because they’re an incumbent. But as we saw in Connecticut, those are things that can be overcome.”
Yet the Netroots are hardly deep in Tauscher’s district. Moulitsas cites the California political Web site Calitics as his guide for the local pulse, but its contributors could find only a few local politicos who don’t care for Tauscher — one of them a high school student. The most prominent resident they found was Gabriel Baty, vice chair of the El Cerrito Democratic Club and a member of the Contra Costa County Democratic central committee.
For Baty, of all the blots in Tauscher’s record — her support of the reprehensible bankruptcy reform bill, for example — the worst was a comment she recently made to The New York Times warning Democrats against “getting the majority and running over the left cliff.” “To me, that was very insulting,” Baty says. “She was basically dismissing a whole flank of the party at a time when we were being unified.”
Baty is hardly the only activist who finds Tauscher’s public rhetoric her most damning sin. “She undermines her party every chance she gets, just like Joe Lieberman in the Senate,” Moulitsas says. “You hear him talk, and his entire strategy is to undermine the Democratic Party. That’s the strategy Ellen Tauscher will use. She’s going to be the person to call on when you need someone to criticize the Democratic Party.”
But anyone who thinks the occasional flip remark in the Times will spell Tauscher’s doom hasn’t been paying attention. Her district may be solidly Democratic (48 percent ass, 37 percent pachyderm), but it hosts Travis Air Force Base and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and defense installations tend to breed a more conservative brand of Democrat. In addition, Tauscher has been careful to bring home the pork in the form of $119 million in transportation projects for Highway 4 and other roads. According to Luis Quinonez, an aide to Contra Costa County Supervisor Susan Bonilla and former aide to Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Tauscher’s support is much deeper than her opponents have anticipated. “Is it a San Francisco in terms of its Democratic politics?” he asked. “No. It’s a moderate area, and it gives rise to moderate Democrats.”
Both Baty and Moulitsas point out that incumbents shouldn’t expect their reelections to be a walk in the park. “In my ideal world, every incumbent, even the ones I like, should have a serious opponent every election,” Moulitsas says. “Because they get corrupt and lazy.”
Hey, the man has a point. Tauscher’s critics may be shooting for a pipe dream, but at least they’ll force her to remodulate her politics to conform with whatever values she deems necessary to her survival. When asked to comment for this story, Tauscher spokeswoman April Boyd noted the congresswoman’s strident, if only recent, opposition to the conduct of the Iraq war, and even sang the praises of the very Netroots folks who hammered her boss. They won’t win, but they’ll keep the old girl on her toes.