The Facebook page for Jon Stewart's Oct. 30 Rally to Restore Sanity was on its way to 100,000 attendees when liberals rediscovered that most familiar of emotions: panic.
Why would there be panic about the first fun or galvanizing event that Barack Obama's liberal base had to look forward to since their limited edition Shepard Fairey prints came in the mail? It's simple. Democrats look at the electoral map and see that they're doomed. Their hope rests on the resilience of liberal activists and union members, who will be spending the final 72 hours of the campaign pulling voters to the polls. And all of a sudden here come Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, turning a joke into a mega-rally and plucking liberals right out of their get-out-the-vote operations during their most crucial weekend.
"A lot of people on campus are going," says William Vogt, a Georgetown University junior and spokesman for the campus's College Democrats. "I'm planning to attend it, too. Right now I don't think we're worried about an effect on GOTV. The rally is Saturday; Halloween is Sunday. We're still going to vote on Tuesday."
This is high-grade Democratic nightmare fuel. In 2008, college kids from Washington, D.C., campuses regularly boarded buses to campaign for Obama-Biden in Virginia. In Iowa, twentysomething Obama volunteers erased bad memories of Howard Dean's messy campaign by getting to know locals and mastering caucus politics. Both of these activities seemed more useful than an attention-getting rally that, like so many rallies, will just reinforce what the activists think. And what they think when they watch Stewart and Colbert is: "Aren't these right-wingers a bunch of rubes?"
Democrats don't think this is helpful, and a few of them poured their hearts out to Politico's Ben Smith. "To the extent that some people who will attend his rally would otherwise be involved in GOTV efforts," wrote party strategist Steve Rosenthal, "this is not helpful."
Tea Partiers are on the same page. They appreciate the distraction from the labor movement's One Nation rally on Oct. 2, which has only started to get attention since … well, since it started being analyzed as a victim of Restoring Sanity. They also appreciate liberal activists taking themselves out of the GOTV game for a day.
"I'd much rather see liberals coming to D.C. that weekend than staying in their districts and GOTV-ing," says Brendan Steinhauser, director of state campaigns for FreedomWorks and a key organizer of the group's two 9/12 rallies. "Our guys are going to be in Ohio and Pennsylvania knocking on doors."
There's no blaming Jon Stewart here. The Tea Partiers went through their own period of reflection about the wisdom of rallies. It was in March 2009; the conclusion was that the rallies were wise. They discovered their natural allies and brainstormed new organizations, and by summer 2010, they were deep into horse-race politics, candidate endorsements, and the humiliation of moderate Republicans in party primaries.
Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally, the inspiration for the Stewart/Colbert shindig, was bookended by D.C. strategy sessions and rallies by groups like FreedomWorks. This year's 9/12 rally, much smaller than last year's, was all about the election. A much-discussed National Tea Party Unity Convention, organized by the people who planned the Nashville convention in February, is probably not going to happen, and one reason is that activists are too busy with electioneering to rally.
That prompts a question: Why do Democrats think the Stewart/Colbert stunt is pulling away potential electioneers? The only sure thing about the 2010 election is that liberals aren't as excited to vote as conservatives are. Monday's Gallup Poll on the generic ballot found, for the first time in a while, that Democrats were tied with Republicans in a one-to-one vote. But it also found that Republican voters were much more certain to vote than Democrats were. Forty-seven percent of Republicans were "very enthusiastic," while only 28 percent of Democrats were. That was exactly the kind of sluggishness that killed the Republicans and boosted the Democrats in 2008.
But what do the stars of Comedy Central do to change that? The plan, as Stewart and Colbert opaquely describe it, would seem to be a booster shot of smugness. On the Rally to Restore Sanity Facebook page, the disembodied voice of Stewart issues a call for "the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn't be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it's appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler."
That's quite a bow to the new reality. A few years ago, it was liberals wincing at their fellow travelers when they were stupid enough to think that rallying on the Mall with Bush-Hitler signs would change anything. With the start of the Obama campaign in 2007, the liberal pose became happy and self-righteous. The biggest rally in recent American history was not 9/12; it was a gathering of liberals on the Mall on Jan. 20, celebrating the arrival of the leader whose face they had on their walls. *
This was not comfortable turf for liberals. It was very comfortable turf for both conservatives and for satirists like Stewart and Colbert, because the cult of Obama and the optimism of liberals was fairly ridiculous. When the Tea Party movement started up, egged on by Stewart's accidental archenemy Beck, it broadened the focus of the satirists, but it didn't galvanize liberals. They'd spent eight years being alternately smug or afraid when they thought about Republicans. They got rid of the Republicans. And now they were supposed to rediscover their smugness?
The Democratic panic is out of whack. Stewart's rally will attract two kinds of people: The liberals who weren't going to GOTV anyway, and the liberals who needed this final jolt to reconnect with their elitism. The people who were going to turn votes for the Democrats won't be there.
"I don't think it's going to be a big deal among union voters," says Eddie Vale, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO. "If you've got a steelworker in Pennsylvania who's door-knocking that day, he's not going to say, 'Oh, shit! I need to see Jon Stewart!' "
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Correction, Sept. 23, 2010: This article originally referred to Obama's inauguration as the "biggest rally in modern American history." It was the largest American gathering in the past 20 years but not over such a broad time period. (Return to the corrected sentence.)