Liberal, conservative activists meet and admire — a bit — in Minneapolis

Listening to speakers at this weekend’s dueling political conferences here — Netroots Nation (left, at the Convention Center) and Right Online (right, at the Hilton) — you would think there could be brawls on the Skyway that connects the two.

“George Soros-funded flying monkeys,” conservative commentator Michelle Malkin called the Netroots. Panelists at Netroots talked of “right-wing craziness” and “right-wing violence and extremism.”

Underneath the surface, however, lies a bit of a mutual admiration society. Conservative activists express respect for the left’s ability to fundraise and adapt to new technologies. Liberals look with some envy on the enthusiasm of the tea party movement. Both sides wonder how the other manages to be so much more aggressive, more focused, more unified.

RightOnline was founded in 2008 as a response to Netroots Nation, which began in 2004. It’s more of a top-down affair (a problem with the whole Republican Party, younger activists here lament), hosted by Americans for Prosperity, a major Republican-backing organization. Netroots was launched by online activists and only later attracted the attention and respect of mainstream Democrats.

RightOnline’s conference is smaller (about 1,200 people to Netroots’ 2,500) and more focused on strategy than policy. RightOnline always makes sure to be in the same city, so the get-together is guaranteed more media attention.

“I think the left is naturally more aggressive about delivering a message,” said Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity. “A lot of times on the conservative side, people will think, ‘If I’m right that’s enough.’ Our folks have learned that it’s not enough to be right.”

Liberals beg to differ. “Attitude is sullen, frustrated, sad,” he wrote of Netroots on Twitter. “Weird to have a conference of political activists who have lost their faith in politics.”

But among conservatives, there was mostly envy of liberal technological skills.

“We’re trying to compete with ActBlue but they’re way, way ahead of us. We’re playing catch-up,” said John Hawkins of Right Wing News. “Their panels are for advanced activism. This is basic, for getting into activism.” A sign in the hallway of RightOnline advertised “proven technology used by millions of Democrats.”

Over at Netroots, there was talk of the enthusiasm and media attention on the other side.

“The tea party changed the discussion,” said Van Jones, the former White House “green czar” who is launching a new economic campaign called Rebuild the Dream. “What they were able to do is take pre-existing sentiment and preexisting groups that were not visible and they got those visible. They got those people heard.”

Netroots still has clout. Four senators were at Netroots; none came for RightOnline. (Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, was scheduled to attend but could not make it). The head of the Democratic National Committee spoke at Netroots; no top officials from the Republican National Committee attended RightOnline.

Yet RightOnline had two presidential candidates, who told the gathered activists exactly what they wanted to hear. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) delivered the same speech she gave a day earlier at the Republican Leadership Conference, to great applause. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty gave a fast, short, invigorating speech, though he received fewer standing ovations than his home-state rival.

By contrast, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeif­fer addressed Netroots Nation and got mostly heckles and boos from an audience that thought he was evading questions on issues such as jobs, gay rights and Social Security — and that the White House is ignoring its base.

At a panel on how to work with Organizing for America in 2012, President Obama’s campaign representative Jeremy Bird was peppered with questions about lack of enthusiasm.

“I’m not saying at all that there’s not frustration,” Bird pushed back, adding that “there are a lot of people out there . . . who are very excited about the president.”

But the only chants of “Yes We Can” seemed to be at RightOnline.

“A lot of these people came to political awareness, came to the Netroots around the 2008 campaign,” said Jane Hamsher, who founded the influential liberal blog FireDogLake. A longtime critic of some administration policies, Hamsher was on a panel called “What to Do When the President is Just Not That Into You.” “It’s a hard decision to say, ‘This person disappointed me,’ so I’m a little surprised at the extent to which that seems to be the sentiment here.”

There was a “Right Meets Left Left Meets Right” happy hour Thursday night, where bloggers from both sides of the aisle met over free beers, paid for by the Republican lobbying firm DCI Group.

“I taught a liberal how to use Twitter,” bragged Melissa Clouthier, who learned how to tweet at RightOnline in 2008 and now has over 21,000 followers.

Neither side explained to the other how it manages to be so tough, so unified, so powerful. Maybe next year.

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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