WASHINGTON -- MoveOn.org, one of the most influential progressive organizations in Washington, is dramatically reorienting its approach to politics, people inside and outside the organization tell The Huffington Post. Interviews with current and former officials indicate that the grassroots powerhouse will place less emphasis on what's known in Washington as the inside game, and cede large elements of its strategic planning directly to its more than 7 million members.
Advocates of the radical new approach hope that it will exponentially increase MoveOn's power by harnessing the energy and talent of its activist base, allowing the group to break free of Washington dogma and discover new ways to effect change. Skeptics worry that MoveOn's decision is a consequence of failed leadership and irresponsibly relinquishes much of its power in Washington, creating a vacuum which no obvious progressive organization can move to fill.
The changes are accompanied by roughly 15 layoffs and staff departures. Justin Ruben, the organization's executive director, who recently met with President Barack Obama among a group of progressive leaders, is removing himself from day-to-day operational control, and will become board president. Anna Galland will take over as executive director in January. MoveOn's political action committee will be shutting down in 2013. Ruben insisted it will pick back up next election year.
Ruben said the change in strategy was driven by frustration with the slow pace of progress. "It's been really clear over the last couple years that we had to up our game, progressives as a whole. Because the world is not the one that we want to see," he said. "The election was a tiny taste of the power we have when we really all come out, but between the crush of money in elections and watching how Wall Street just got off scot free and are still up to their same business, and having an election where climate change was a dirty word. We can't be looking for incremental gains, we have to dramatically change what we do."
But at the center of it all is uncertainty about what, precisely, the group plans to do.
"This is not easy to explain," Ruben acknowledged to The Huffington Post in an extensive interview. The essence of the shift, he said, relates to how the organization devises its strategy.
"The old way of doing things, you could think of it as there are three steps in the campaign process," Ruben said. "Step one, listen hard to what members want. Step two, figure out what we can do on that. Step three, turn around and kick that back out to folks and say, 'Ok, if everybody stands on their head on Thursday, we'll get health care,' or whatever the strategy is that we've come up with. So the game here is to take that middle step, which is really the leadership step, and hand as much of it over to members as possible."
MoveOn will still weigh in on elections and other national issues, said Ruben, but the new bottom-up approach will mean much more attention on local issues.
"It's a huge shift and definitely a risk, but it's doable and we feel like it has the potential ... to dramatically increase the number of successful progressive campaigns and projects around the country and to give us a much more clout in these big national fights that have already been our focus, like a big election or the fiscal showdown," Ruben said.
Ruben cited a grassroots-driven campaign that originated with a Pittsburgh member who used the group's new petitions software, called SignOn, to urge local elections officials not to implement a voter ID law. Campaigners working for MoveOn latched onto the idea and helped spread it across Pennsylvania, running paid media and a traditional campaign against the law, which was ultimately blocked. MoveOn's campaign team, Ruben said, would have never thought to urge local officials to oppose the law, but breaking out of the Washington box allows more creative thinking.
Ruben's critics charge that he has unilaterally disarmed MoveOn at the national level without asking its members which direction they wanted to go in. MoveOn's tradition of consulting its members before every campaign was central to its model.
"MoveOn dumped some of the most talented, effective campaigners in progressive politics without any input from their own membership, which seems like a fairly flagrant betrayal of their own principles," said one progressive activist disappointed with MoveOn's announcement.
But Ruben, who's been at MoveOn since 2004, said it was obvious that its members wanted to go that way.
"Put it this way: We created these MoveOn Councils, and everytime I meet with a council, they say, we want to work on local issues. We like working on this national stuff, this health care campaign, we think it's great, but there's also this incinerator they want to build here, please can we do that? We've been saying for awhile, yes you can do that but you have to do it separately," he said. "We would have to be deaf not to hear people's desires for a way to lead, to organize local fights and local campaigns, and in many cases to take on more of a role."
Ruben said that the fiscal cliff fight is an example of the new approach to politics. "We're definitely not giving up on politics, we're doubling down," he said. In the past, MoveOn might have done a "call-in day, day of action or whatever." While the group will still pursue such activities, it won't be the focus, Ruben said. "Now, we've got members in a bunch of Democratic districts running their own campaigns targeting their members of Congress, pushing them on whether they'll absolutely commit not to cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits. In Republican districts we have people kind of self-organizing campaigns pushing their reps to drop their Grover Norquist pledge. ... We have millionaires organizing to say we should be taxed."
"Some of these same members who've come forward, now we're working on making ads for them," he added. "That's something that they couldn't do alone, but we can do. It's that synergy between everything we know how to do about running a good campaign, and the bottom-up approach. That's the sweet spot."
But many progressives who have long looked to MoveOn to drive the community's activism were less optimistic.
"I don't think the SignOn or the Change.org model can win really big and tough objectives," said one progressive leader who has worked with MoveOn, saying that such a mission required knowledgable staff guiding the strategies.
"They basically fired the football team's coaching staff and front office to let the players and fans just run around the field," added another.
Perhaps MoveOn's greatest victory was pressuring Democratic lawmakers to end the war in Iraq. Its gigantic membership base -- in addition to its unique ability to raise large amounts of small-dollar donations from its supporters -- gave it leverage with politicians during the George W. Bush administration that no other grassroots organization was able to match.
"While they were not everyone's cup of tea within the Senate Democratic caucus, they played an important role in representing the base of the party and at times defending the party at a time when the Bush administration was trying to use the national security issue to bludgeon Democrats into submission," said Jim Manley, who was a top aide to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at the time.
That powerful progressive voice in Washington is exactly what many critics of MoveOn's announcement are afraid will now be lost with the group's restructuring.
"As a MoveOn member, I shudder to think about MoveOn not on the watch tower," said one progressive leader.
Ruben acknowledged that there were disagreements with the strategic shift away from the inside game, and that those opposed will be leaving the organization. But overall, he said, leadership is backing the new plan. "There was a lot of enthusiasm pretty quickly for this direction," he said. "Some people do have a different vision."
PCCC co-founder Adam Green cut his teeth as director of strategic campaigns at MoveOn, where he worked for four years. He said it made sense that after so many years of focusing on online petitions, the group would want to try something new.
"MoveOn's value-add to the world was once that it was the only organization that did online petitions," he said. "That's now been replicated, so it makes sense that the organization would 'move on' to an evolved model. It will be very interesting to see if millions of people empowered to be innovative and potentially have their ideas turned into national progressive activism (with the expertise of MoveOn staff giving them guidance) will be a game changer for our politics and public life. It very well could be."
But what frustrates many of MoveOn's biggest supporters isn't that the group wants to focus more on SignOn and member-driven petitions; it's that they believe MoveOn's new leadership has failed in its more traditional responsibilities and is now giving up.
"Justin never figured out how to campaign in the post-Obama world," said the progressive leader who has worked with MoveOn, saying Ruben drove the organization "into the ground."
"The proof is in the pudding. Either we make this work or we don't," Ruben said. "By our fruit shall ye know us."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that the voter ID law in Pennsylvania was overturned. It was temporarily blocked and the matter will be taken up again next year.