By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 28, 2006
Democrats are getting an early glimpse of an intraparty rift that could complicate efforts to win back the White House: fiery liberals raising their voices on Web sites and in interest groups vs. elected officials trying to appeal to a much broader audience.
These activists -- spearheaded by battle-ready bloggers and making their influence felt through relentless e-mail campaigns -- have denounced what they regard as a flaccid Democratic response to the Supreme Court fight, President Bush's upcoming State of the Union address and the Iraq war. In every case, they have portrayed party leaders as gutless sellouts.
First, liberal Web logs went after Democrats for selecting Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to deliver the response to Bush's speech next Tuesday. Kaine's political sins: He was too willing to drape his candidacy in references to religion and too unwilling to speak out aggressively against Bush on the Iraq war. Kaine has been lauded by party officials for finding a victory formula in Bush country by running on faith, values and fiscal discipline.
Many Web commentators wanted Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a leading critic of the Iraq war who advocates a speedy withdrawal, to be the opposition voice on the State of the Union night. Most Democratic lawmakers have distanced themselves from the Murtha position. "What the hell are they thinking?" was the title of liberal blogger Arianna Huffington's column blasting the Kaine selection.
"Blogs can take up a lot of time if you're on them," Kaine said to reporters Thursday. "You can get a lot done if you're not bitterly partisan."
The Virginia Democrat said he will not adjust his speech to placate the party's base. "I'm not anybody's mouthpiece or shill or poster boy for that matter. I'm going to say what I think needs to be said and they seem very comfortable with that."
Liberal activists seemed to have slightly more influence with their campaign to persuade Senate Democrats to filibuster the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. Despite several polls showing that the public opposes the effort, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) on Thursday strongly advocated the filibuster plan -- and wrote about his choice on the Daily Kos, a Web site popular with liberals. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a leading liberal and critic of the Iraq war, told reporters Kerry's viewpoint is not shared by most in a culturally conservative swing state such as West Virginia. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) also opposes the filibuster.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is another frequent target of the Internet attacks. Code Pink, an antiwar women's group with a flashy Web site, plans to protest one of Clinton's weekend fundraisers and is using the Web site to rally people against the New York Democrat. The critics say Clinton has not challenged Bush aggressively enough on Iraq.
"The bloggers and online donors represent an important resource for the party, but they are not representative of the majority you need to win elections," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who advised Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. "The trick will be to harness their energy and their money without looking like you are a captive of the activist left."
The blogs-vs.-establishment fight represents the latest version of a familiar Democratic dispute. It boils down to how much national candidates should compromise on what are considered core Democratic values -- such as abortion rights, gun control and opposition to conservative judges -- to win national elections.
Many Democrats say the only way to win nationally is for the party to become stronger on the economy and promote a centrist image on cultural values, as Kaine did in Virginia and as Bill Clinton did in two successful presidential campaigns.
The new twist in this debate is the Web, which in recent election cycles emerged as a powerful political force, one expected to figure even more prominently as more people get high-speed connections and turn to the Internet for news and commentary. Unlike the past, the "pressure is conveyed through a faster, better organized, more insistent medium," said Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist.
In the 2004 campaign, liberals used the Web to organize meetings and raise money to power the unexpected rise of former Vermont governor Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries. Dean, a newcomer to national politics who connected with liberals with his antiwar position and declaration to supporters that "you have the power" to change Washington, shattered fundraising records and for months was considered the front-runner in the race for the nomination.
But the Democratic establishment turned on Dean, and his grass-roots operation was not as strong in reality as it appeared on the Internet. Since then, liberal activists have created scores of political blogs and used the Web as an organizing tool and a way to quickly vent frustrations to Democratic leaders in Washington.
The closest historic parallel would be the talk-radio phenomenon of the early 1980s, when conservatives -- like liberals now -- felt powerless and certain they did not have a way to voice their views because the mainstream media and many of their own leaders considered them out of touch. Through talk radio, often aired in rural parts of the country on the AM dial, conservatives pushed the party to the right on social issues and tax cuts.
The question Democrats will debate over the next few years is whether the prevailing views of liberal activists on the war, the role of religion in politics and budget policies will help or hinder efforts to recapture the presidency and Congress.
Even if they disagree with their positions, Democratic candidates recognize from the Dean experience the power of the activists to raise money and infuse a campaign with their energy. On the flip side, the Alito and Kaine episodes serve as a cautionary tales of what can happen to politicians when they spurn the blogs.
"John Kerry is beginning to bring the traditional Democratic leadership in Washington together with the untraditional netroots activists of the country," James Boyce wrote on the Huffington Post. "A man often accused of being the ultimate Washington insider looked outside of the beltway and saw the concern, in fact, the distress among literally millions of online Democrats."
Other Democrats, Boyce wrote, "triangulated, fabricated, postulated and capitulated."
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.