As an unabashed and high-profile liberal on President Barack Obama’s White House staff, former “green energy” czar Van Jones was to Republicans what a red cape is to a snorting bull: an irresistible target.
So when he resigned in 2009 under withering fire from the right — triggered by a video of him disparaging the GOP, followed by revelations of a tenuous connection to Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists — few doubted Jones was finished in Washington. He acknowledged as much a year later, writing in The New York Times that politics has become “a combination of speed chess and Mortal Kombat: one wrong move can mean political death.”
What a difference two years can make.
While still a high-value target for conservatives, the charismatic Jones has rebounded from his messy departure to become a superstar of the resurgent left, founding — with MoveOn.org — the American Dream Movement, a grass-roots political force modeled after the tea party. His issue is no longer just green jobs, but to push back against the right’s domination of economic policy and social issues that he dates to the 2010 election.
“I thought progressives were too quick to go from hopey to mopey” during the past two years, Jones told POLITICO in a recent interview. “They skipped the fight in the middle.”
The tea party, he said, impressed him by “the way they were able to gather so many organizations and individuals under an open-source brand. There just wasn’t a voice on the economy for progressives and moderates that was coherent and passionate like them. I thought that was really fascinating, so I studied them.”
Jones helped organize a September summit, “Take Back the American Dream,” drawing more than 200 progressive organizations, and worked with groups in Ohio to defeat a bill which would have tightly restricted unions’ collective-bargaining power. And the themes of jobs and economic equality pushed by “Rebuild the Dream” — as the umbrella organization is known — dovetail with the economic message of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
To his supporters, Jones’s combative stance personifies the uncompromising liberal they wish Obama would be. But Jones credits the vocal right and the relative inaction of liberals more than he blames Obama for the predicament in which the left finds itself.
“I’m not mad at the tea party for being so loud,” he said. “I’m mad at the progressives for being so quiet the past couple of years and not having that fire and that intensity at the grass-roots level to give both parties something to respond to that’s not just cut, cut, cut.
“You hear people talking about a disappointment [in Obama] and this kind of thing. I’m still of the view it was never, ‘Yes, he can.’ It’s supposed to be, ‘Yes, we can.’ And the ‘we’ was not evident in a couple of those years.”
But with issues ranging from Code Pink’s end-the-war stance to Planned Parenthood’s fight to protect Roe v. Wade and labor’s battles for preservation of its rights, unifying the left is a tall order. And until recently, “Rebuild the Dream” seemed to be gaining little traction. Jones’ summit drew a few thousand participants and scant media attention, and only a few hundred of them attended a “Jobs, Not Cuts” rally on Capitol Hill.
Allies, however, insist Jones’s message is resonating with frustrated liberals and that the Occupy Wall Street movement presents him with an opportunity to elevate his message.
“We’re tired of people rigging the game. That’s the message of this movement,” Jones said in an interview on MSNBC, commenting on OWS’s “day of action” that it now “it’s time to turn the anger into answers.”
The progressive movement “needs a focal point the way the tea party has provided a focal point for the movement,” said Gloria Totten, president of Progressive Majority, an advocacy organization for the left. “That’s happening. Things have moved in that direction, and Van deserves a lot of credit for that.”
In an interview with POLITICO, Jones rattled off statistics he says shows “Rebuild” has passed its right-wing model in measurable categories of organizing: nearly twice the number of organizing house parties that the tea party had; almost triple the number of participants in drafting its online manifesto, “even without the Koch brothers, even without Fox News blowing it all up.”
Central to that fight, however, is Jones, a gifted orator whose White House departure under pressure from the right has given him unimpeachable street cred on the left.
“He’s a good face for this effort,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “He was in [the White House] until the scandalous attacks of the right. … He was politically pushed out. Because of that experience, he brings medals that others don’t” to the movement.
To conservatives, however, Jones is still an irrestible target.
He first drew right-wing ire as a White House aide principally because he was in charge of Obama’s high-profile renewable-energy portfolio, which excited liberals but was anathema to pro-business, “drill-baby-drill” conservatives. It didn’t help that Jones’ high-profile advocacy for wind turbines and solar panels at times preached from the global-warming, “Inconvenient Truth” gospel of former Vice President Al Gore, a favorite whipping boy of Republicans.
Critics opened fire on Jones, however, after a video surfaced of him criticizing the GOP as “assholes.” Jones apologized for the remark, saying it was in poor taste and did not reflect the views of the administration. But two years later, there’s no sign that conservatives have forgiven him for it — or anything else.
His Rebuild the Dream idea “is so far left, it’s out of the mainstream,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a FreedomWorks spokesman.
Steinhauser pointed to Jones’s brief affiliation in the 1990s group called Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement, which opened him to accusations that he associated with Communists; and a 2004 letter featuring Jones’s name, urging an investigation into whether the Bush administration allowed Sept. 11 to happen as a “pretext to war.”
In the Times essay, Jones wrote that he was falsely accused of signing the petition “being passed around by 9/11 conspiracy theorists,” which caused a “[rush] to judgment” that overwhelmed the fact that the group used his name without permission. “The group finally admitted that it never had my signature, but by then, it was too late,” he said.
Jones “is way out on the fringe. His ideas are crazy,” Steinhauser said. “They’re the same Marxist foolishness that he’s been preaching — that’s his vision for the future. He’s on the wrong side of history here.”
It’s also noteworthy that the White House “seems to want some of these allies and keep them at arms length. I think he’s still pretty toxic,” Steinhauser added. “I don’t think they want to necessarily be seen working closely with him.”
A White House spokesman declined to discuss Jones.
But Jones said he has no issues with the White House. “I have nothing but positive things to say about the administration,” he said.
“Working there was a privilege, not a right,” Jones said. But he refused to discuss his departure — “that’s for people who are in that D.C. bubble, who’s up and who’s down, that’s their big thing” — but said he offered his resignation, the White House did not ask for it.
And far from undercutting the White House, Jones said his efforts could actually complement the president’s reelection campaign.
“I think that people are quick to want to push [this] into a pro-Obama or anti-Obama label,” Jones said. “But it’s really people saying, ‘We’re trying to save the American middle-class and working-class families.’ If that helps to save the president, great.”
Nevertheless, he said, “there are going to be disagreements. There are going to be points of tension and conflict. But over the long term, having a revitalized movement that can speak more for progressives and moderates helps the whole country, No. 1, and it also helps the president.”
Most progressives, he said, are “not in love with [Obama] anymore, but they still like him. They want him to be reelected. But their passion is now more about issues. It’s more about workers’ rights being attacked in Ohio or Wisconsin. Or it’s more about Wall Street hurting homeowners and small businesses and students with big loans. That’s where the passion is.”
Real, systemic change requires “both a willing leader at the White House level” but strong grass-roots organizations supporting him, Jones said. “If we had been [organizing and protesting] in 2009 and been disappointed with the White House, that’s one thing. But when we aren’t even doing those things — and the only people who are marching and rallying are the tea party — I don’t think you have a fair experiment” to determine which ideology should prevail.
And though he’s the face of the movement, “the one thing we learned is people say they don’t believe in a charismatic superhero,” Jones said. “I don’t either. I believe in a super movement. The TP wasn’t based on a single individual. It was based on a set of principles.”
“People will always let you down. Principles don’t let you down,” he said. “We’re trying to build something that’s based on principle, not personalities.”To view the article on Politico, click here.