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By Ben Smith
Posted April 11, 2008
Wealthy Democrats are preparing a four-month, $40 million media
campaign centered on attacks on Sen. John McCain. And it will be led by David
Brock, the former investigative reporter who first gained fame in the
1990s as a right-wing, anti-Clinton journalist.
The planned campaign is the product of a shakeup in the top ranks of
the struggling independent Democratic groups. Brock, now best known as
the ex-conservative founder of the liberal group Media Matters, last
month quietly assumed the chairmanship of what's expected to be the main
vehicle for independent Democratic attacks on McCain, now called
Progressive Media USA.
The move comes after the groups that had been expected to spearhead
attacks on McCain - the Fund for America and Progressive Media USA's
previous incarnation, the Campaign to Defend America - failed to raise the
money needed to dent McCain's armor.
"We're a little behind where we need to be," he said.
But after a dinner Tuesday night at the Manhattan apartment of liberal
megadonor George Soros, at which Brock and consultant Paul Begala laid
out the group's plans, Brock said his group now has commitments worth
$7.5 million - almost twice what the Fund for America is expected to
report raising in the first quarter of this year. He said the group would
begin running ads before it meets its $40 million goal.
Brock suggested that the group could do the work of a press corps that,
he says, has "fallen down on the job" when it comes to McCain.
"A void that might be filled, while the Democrats fight it, out by the
press is not going to be filled, because the press is in love with John
McCain," Brock said in an interview at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan.
"It's what McCain is allowed to say without being challenged by facts
that will show him to have said something different in the past."
Brock's most recent book is called "Free Ride: John McCain and the
Brock wouldn't detail Progressive Media USA's strategy, and stressed
that - as required by his group's nonprofit status - the spending would
be on a mix of direct electoral politics and issue ads with no direct
connection to the race.
But he said he's scrambling to raise "a few million" dollars more this
month to get ads on the air - ads which have already been drafted for
the group by a number of Democratic consulting firms.
"There's a sense of urgency, and people want to go, and we want to go,
and the question is bringing the money in to say we're ready to go," he
Brock's remarkable emergence as a leader of the Democratic Party's
shadow campaign efforts marks a milestone in a long personal journey that
began in the early 1990s with the notoriety he gained from magazine
stories written for The American Spectator, a conservative monthly. Among
his controversial articles was one alleging that Bill Clinton had used
Arkansas state troopers to facilitate his philandering, a piece that set
the wheels in motion for Paula Jones to file suit against Clinton for
sexual harassment. In 1993, Brock authored "The Real Anita Hill," a
critical book about the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence
Thomas of sexual harassment.
Brock later apologized to Clinton in a public letter and broke publicly
with the conservative movement. He wrote about his disillusionment in
his 2002 memoir "Blinded by the Right," and Hillary Rodham Clinton
later helped him establish Media Matters, which criticizes reporters for
alleged right-wing "misinformation."
Brock is now seen in political circles as closer to Sen. Hillary
Clinton's campaign than to Sen. Barack Obama's, but Brock said he has already
met with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a close Obama
"This is a unity play," Brock said.
Donors had begun to complain that while the Campaign to Defend America
had built a large organization - it has, Brock said, 29 staffers, most
devoted to "research" - it had failed to show it could mount a
large-scale media campaign.
The Campaign to Defend America aired a single ad called "McSame" in
small markets in Ohio and Pennsylvania and ran polls after it aired to
test its impact.
The ad features President Bush's head cut and pasted onto McCain's
shoulders, as a narrator intones that their policies on a range of issues
"We need a new direction, not the McSame old thing," the narrator
"It tested off-the-charts well," said Brock, referring to his group's
research into viewers' reactions to the ad.
Brock's words, and his unpaid chairmanship, reflect alarm that
Democrats are missing an opportunity to define McCain, even as the presumptive
nominee tours the country telling his own story. The plan, conceived
last fall, had been for the Fund for America to raise $100 million from
wealthy Democrats, and to transfer it to groups including the Campaign
to Defend America and America Votes, a Soros-backed independent group
aimed at strengthening Democrats' field organizing.
But Fund for America has been unable to raise the money, and Campaign
to Defend America had agreed not to raise its own money. Last Thursday,
Brock said, he informed an official of the fund that his group would
begin directly raising its own funds, a move that puts the usefulness of
the Fund for America in question.
"We are as committed at Progressive Media USA to having the money we
need to fully execute our mission as we are to seeing to it that America
Votes has the money to execute its mission," he said, a formulation
that appeared pointedly to exclude the Fund for America, which had been
established as a kind of parent organization.
Brock added that he was open to continue to raise money jointly with
the Fund for America - if the distribution is "equitable."
The organizational shakeup also reflects a move away from MoveOn.org,
the influential activist group that relies on money from small donors,
and back toward the Democratic establishment. Brock's arrival means that
Tom Matzzie, a former MoveOn staffer who remains the secretary of
Progressive Media USA, is no longer the group's most visible official. A
founder of MoveOn, Wes Boyd, also left the group's board, and a former
chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Susan McCue, joined
as the group's treasurer.
Brock said that with the help of a new legal team, the group had solved
a key question connected to its financing. Incorporated as a 501(c)4
nonprofit, the group has the advantage of not being required to disclose
its donors. But it is barred by law from taking money from unions, a
major source of funds for progressive causes. Brock said he was creating
a linked 527 group, Progressive Media Action, which would accept - and
disclose - union and other funds.
Though donors and operatives say they expect the group's highest
profile work to be attacks against McCain, the new Democratic groups were
conceived to build an infrastructure lasting beyond this election, and
Brock - whose Media Matters is on the vanguard of the well-funded new
liberal establishment - said Progressive Media USA would live beyond this
Brock said Los Angeles real estate magnate Steve Bing was among a group
of donors backing his group's long-term mission - despite many
Democrats' expectations that Bing and other Clinton supporters would only
contribute if Clinton is the nominee. Soros, the group's key backer,
supports Obama, and hosted a key, early gathering of the senator's wealthy
New York supporters.
Brock said the group would be a ready-made vehicle to conduct media
campaigns backing liberal causes on short notice, an analog to the
partisan conservative message machine, giving liberals "the ability to create
a real echo chamber."
He recalled that in 2004, his fledgling group had debunked "90 percent"
of the content of an advertisement Swift Boat Veterans' for Truth that
challenged Sen. John Kerry's war record - but had no way to distribute
"Progressive Media USA will be a permanent part of progressive media
infrastructure," he said.
But while the group's long-term goals may be broader, Brock says his
commitment to the group is on a different timetable.
"I've committed to doing this through November," he said.