LAS VEGAS — THE THOUSAND or so keyboard punchers who showed up last weekend for the first-ever YearlyKos convention of liberal bloggers talk about helping to invent a new politics. And maybe they are. But if the $75,000 Friday-night party tossed for them by former Virginia governor and pre–presidential candidate Mark Warner doesn’t qualify as the hoariest of Old Politics, then what does?
Warner rented the observation tower of the 1,100-foot Stratosphere at the top of the Strip and, along with the stunning views of greater Vegas, a live band, a set of Blues Brothers impersonators and free roller-coaster rides, offered up bottomless barrels of “blogaritas” and “Kos-mopolitans,” tables of prime rib and sushi, even a flowing fountain of milk chocolate and mounds of strawberries ready to be dunked. As Warner and his staff walked the circular room, hundreds of bloggers crowded around to shake his hand, snap his digital picture or write down his words, which would soon be blogged onto the Web.
Not that the governor had that much to say. When I asked him what he made of the blog boom, he used the same canned phrase he would use the next day in what was an undisguised stump speech–cum–campaign video on the convention floor. “This is the new public square,” he said. “It’s happening in real time. The way people think, act and do politics is changing right before our eyes.”
The pugnacious, buggy-eyed, 34-year-old Markos Moulitzas Zuniga (a.k.a. “Kos” himself), who inspired this gathering and whose DailyKos Web site, with a half-million readers per day, is the biggest and most influential on the liberal side of the ’sphere, took pains to clarify that this was no early endorsement of Warner. After all, online support from Kos and his allies had as much as created the Howard Dean campaign of 2004. And Kos now wanted everyone to know that all this coziness with the centrist Warner didn’t mean he was already in the bag for him. That Jerome Armstrong, co-author of Kos’ new book, Crashing the Gate, and founder of the liberal Mydd.com übersite, was already on Warner’s payroll as an adviser didn’t help dispel that notion. “I’m undecided, really,” the Kos said as he introduced Warner for a brief speech at the party. “This is only a first date,” he assured. “But as a first date, this is pretty damn cool.”
All of which prompted my party pal and editor of the PersonalDemocracy.com Web site, Micah Sifry, to grumble in response, rather loudly, “Then you’re a cheap date.” That sort of skepticism coming from Sifry carries some real gravitas in the cyber world, for Sifry’s one of those prominent bloggers who do count themselves among those who believe the Web can revolutionize politics.
Kos had made an explicit vow the evening before, in his opening speech to the thousand convention goers in the aging Riviera Hotel. “The media elite has failed us. The political elite — from both parties — failed us. Republicans, because they can’t govern, and Democrats, because they can’t get elected,” he said to enthusiastic applause. “Technology allows each of us to be a leader, and allows us to support our new leaders wherever they emerge.”
To Kos’ credit, the convention drew not only an impressively large paying crowd of participants, but also a phalanx of that same media and political “elite” he had passionately thrashed. The presence of frontline political reporters from, among other outlets, the L.A. Times and The New York Times — including columnist Maureen Dowd — finally granted the blog world some long-sought legitimacy and overdue recognition (mind you that the Kos’ readership alone is greater than that of an average midmarket daily paper, in some cases by several multiples). “It showed the media we were not a bunch of people walking around with Che Guevara T-shirts and black ski masks looking for a Starbucks to trash,” Kos told me. “Blog readers are no different than anyone else. We’ve merely provided people a new way to connect and a new way to get involved.” Further validating the media’s new stamp of approval, Kos showed up as a commentator on last Sunday’s Meet the Press.
And the parade of Democratic pols, with their effusive offerings of tribute to the crowd, was also a first. You can now be sure that sometime before the 2008 election, Democratic hopefuls are going to be dragged before some yet-to-be-organized blogcentric beauty contest where they will be forced to please the judges tapping away on their Macs. It’s probably a good thing that Democratic pols like DNC chair Dr. Dean, Senator Barbara Boxer and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid felt compelled to show up this past weekend. As did four potential presidential candidates: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, Wesley Clark (who threw his own lower-profile bash at the Hard Rock) and Warner.
The fawning pols — with the possible exception of Dean (who owes his career to these folks) — treated the event as if it were one more campaign visit to the Iowa State Fair. But instead of hugging the hogs and fussing over farmers, they were buttering up the bloggers, trying to line them up as one more constituency group — and one that could raise money and muster volunteers. So the good news is that the YearlyKos was treated with the seriousness of a Democratic Convention. And the bad news is that at times it seemed like we were at, yes, a Democratic Convention.
Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (and several other Democratic groups) had rented sky-box “hospitality suites” overhanging the Riviera ballroom floor, further enhancing the “official” party feel of the whole affair. Some days in advance, Reid’s staff had solicited interviews with bloggers and journalists it had identified as strategic. When I arrived at my scheduled time, slotted between the L.A. Times’ Ron Brownstein and Arianna Huffington, Reid was picking out the song he wanted played as his intro to the speech he would give later in the evening. The winner was “Street Fighting Man” — an odd choice for a conservative-tempered Mormon (but wholly consistent with his PR campaign, which markets the Nevada senator as Give ’Em Hell Harry).
“Frankly, I saw the potential of these blogs early on,” Reid told me as we sat on a soft leather couch, Mark Warner’s very traditional floor speech filtering in through the suite’s plate-glass doors. “When I first got this job as Democratic leader, I had a retreat. And I thought we should have the bloggers come speak to the Democratic senators, and they did. Markos came. So did some people from MoveOn.”
But Reid’s view of the blogosphere turned out to be rather narrow. He doesn’t really read blogs, he said. Instead, he reviews a regular digest of postings selected by his staff. And as he would clearly articulate in his speech to the crowd a few hours later, he saw the best use of blogs to be that of a partisan Democratic media. “When Republicans start their attack machine,” he said, lauding the “power of information” in the hands of the blogosphere, “we’ll shut it down with the facts!”
“We don’t have a bully pulpit, but we do have you,” Reid said. “We need you to be our megaphone.” Altogether, a message that departs rather dramatically from the grander, sweeping vision of a net-driven paradigm change from the old politics to the new.
SERVING AS A PARTISAN, ONLINE Democratic auxiliary is a role that didn’t discomfort many of those present, because most — if not all — of those present were, in fact, Democrats of some strain or another. Kos was right in repeatedly saying that any honest observer would have noted this wasn’t quite the radical fringe, as liberal bloggers are often portrayed (usually by conservative bloggers). It was a tad geeky at times, but in a very mainstream way. The crowd was older than many anticipated. Solidly middle-class and very white-skinned. They sat around circular tables and munched on box lunches, listened to the speeches and panels, and stared into their open laptop screens, their eyes glued in place by a strong wi-fi connection.
The parading politicians were met unchallenged, with excessive courtesy and deference, most participants seemingly validated and flattered by their mere presence. Next time around, it might be wiser to raise the political price of admission for incumbent and wannabe elected officials. Numerous panel presentations, meanwhile, took on a strangely polarized worldview that let the Democratic pols pretty much off the hook. If the Republicans had enlisted the media as their “Right-Wing Noise Machine,” or the RWNM as it’s called, then, according to the oft-repeated meme, the job of liberal bloggers was to construct an LWNM to defend the Democrats, an online liberal answer to talk radio. “We are part of the noise machine,” Kos said proudly in one of his talks. Exactly what Harry Reid wants of the blogosphere. And why not? That’s a lot more palatable to entrenched Democrats than a Web-based movement of independent politics that would counter the propaganda and spin of both parties.
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A presentation by blogger Christy Hardin Smith of Firedoglake.com was typical of this view. “I want to talk about accountability,” she said. “The lack of accountability when it comes to reporting.” Fair enough. But how about holding Democratic politicians as accountable as, say, The New York Times? One suggested topic for the next YearlyKos: a panel on the accountability of bloggers, who — with the available technology — can now not only compete with mainstream media, but also instantaneously “swarm” a target and smoke his or her public reputation (sometimes without proper factual reporting). Right-wing blogs do it all the time. And so do some liberal blogs.
During one of the panel breaks, I caught up with Kos and pressed him on just how much the blogs were an incipient and independent third force that would, as he promised, “take over” the Democratic Party and remake American politics, and how much they were merely an echo chamber for endangered Democratic dinosaurs.
“In the short term, we have to work with the Democrats we have,” Kos answered. “If it’s Hillary Clinton, fine. I don’t think she’s as unelectable as some people think. Long term is a different story: We start building the machine, we take over the party, we build a new one, we start creating a farm team of progressive candidates. So when we have an open seat, when a bad Democrat dies or gets defeated or gets indicted, we can actually draw upon our farm team of good, progressive Democrats and start electing them.”
It was a solid, realistic answer. It only raised one nagging question: How long is the short term going to be?