Liberals may feel that the compromise negotiated by President Barack Obama is a kick in the teeth, but the debate over Bush-era tax cuts has offered progressives a needed rallying point the month after devastating election losses, re-energizing a depressed Democratic base and allowing liberal groups to boost membership and raise tens of thousands of dollars in recent days.
They have also discovered a new hero: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the outspoken socialist who temporarily held the Senate’s tax debate hostage last week by refusing to stop talking or sit down for 8 hours and 36 minutes.
“You can call what I’m doing today whatever you want. You can call it a filibuster. You can call it a very long speech,” he said as he began Friday at 10:24 a.m. “I’m not here to set any great records or to make a spectacle.”
But that’s exactly what he did.
His office reported receiving more than 10,000 phone calls and 9,000 e-mails — the vast majority were supportive — in the three days after his one-man filibuster, dubbed “Filibernie” on the Internet. Sanders’ Twitter followers jumped 160 percent in the past five days, from 9,600 to almost 25,000. And his Facebook “likes” ballooned by more than 17,000.
The money started flowing as well.
Various websites such as IsBernieSandersStillTalking.com were quickly established to help Sanders, who is up for re-election in 2012 and reported a meager $111,000 in his campaign account at the end of September. Roll Call Politics rates this race Safe Independent.
The Democratic fundraising site ActBlue is hosting at least three separate fundraising portals that used Sanders’ newfound fame or the tax debate to generate money for the Senator and like-minded liberal groups.
One of them was Howard Dean’s Democracy for America, which created a fundraising page Tuesday titled “Back-up Bernie Sanders.” The group raised more than $75,000 from 3,769 individuals in less than 48 hours.
“Support a progressive hero — Please contribute $5 right now,” reads the website, which produced money for both the Senator and Democracy for America. “Bernie Sanders didn’t back down against long odds — he had the backbone to stand up and fight for what’s right. ... Let’s make sure that every Democrat in Washington gets the message: when you stand up and fight, we’ll have your back.”
Sanders was hardly the only beneficiary of bucking the president.
Other Democrats tied their opposition to the tax cut package to fundraising appeals this week as well. The campaign of Sen. Mark Udall, one of just 10 Democratic Senators to oppose ending debate on the issue earlier in the week, sent a message to supporters Tuesday with the subject line, “I voted No.”
“I stand ready to work through the holidays if that’s what it takes to get middle-class Coloradans the tax relief that they deserve,” Udall wrote in the accompanying message that included a “contribute” button that linked to a donation page. His staff could not immediately say how much the message produced. He’s not up for reelection until 2014.
There’s little doubt, however, that anyone who voted against the tax cut extension could face a political backlash.
A Senate aide acknowledged that it’s possible, if not likely, that the risk of standing alone on a difficult issue could outweigh any fundraising advantage.
“It’s an act of courage because this vote could easily be misrepresented and used against them in their next election,” the aide said. “How much money is it going to take to defend that vote if it’s used against you?”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee wasted no time in doing just that.
The GOP’s Senate campaign arm already blasted Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat up for re-election in 2012, for opposing the motion to end debate on the tax bill earlier in the week. “Sherrod Brown Stands To Left of Obama, Joins Socialist Colleague To Vote For Massive Tax Hike,” reads the headline of the recent NRSC press release.
While 14 Democrats voted “no,” Brown ultimately voted for the bill Wednesday, explaining to reporters he’d “changed his mind” after Ohioans sent him letters.
The conservative group American Crossroads is also using the issue to apply political pressure, spending $400,000 this week to broadcast radio attack ads against 12 vulnerable House Democrats, demanding that they support the measure.
But liberal outside groups energized by the tax debate hope to neutralize the Republican attacks while boosting their own strength.
MoveOn.org, for example, flooded the Senate switchboard this week with an estimated 20,000 calls on Monday alone for a “phone-in filibuster” to protest the inclusion of Bush-era tax cuts. Last week, a New York-based progressive group shut down the White House switchboard with calls opposing Obama’s deal with Republicans.
“We also gathered thousands of Facebook posts and tweets about our campaign,” MoveOn leaders wrote supporters Tuesday. “This is exactly the grassroots surge we need to demand a better deal for the middle class.”
And the Progressive Change Campaign Committee reported a 25,000-person membership boost in recent weeks as it aggressively challenged Obama’s decision to compromise with the GOP.
Co-founder Adam Green said his organization also raised more than $100,000 since the tax debate began, which helped fuel a series of television ads in Iowa, Indiana and Washington, D.C., that use the president’s words against him. The ads feature Obama complaining about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on the campaign trail in 2008 for having flip-flopped on tax cuts for the rich. “George Bush’s economic policies still offend my conscience and they still offend yours,” Obama says in the ad.
Green said PCCC members believe Obama is “demobilizing his own troops at Organizing for America and demoralizing independent and Democratic voters right before he seeks re-election.”
Sanders, meanwhile, simply said he was grateful: “Frankly, the response from Vermonters and Americans all across the country was far beyond anything we could have imagined.”