Bloggers' Convention Draws Democrats

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006

LAS VEGAS, June 10 -- The newest provocateur in Democratic Party politics bounced through the corridors of the Riviera Hotel this weekend wearing jeans or baggy shorts, sneakers and a perpetually mischievous grin. His name is Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, and not many years ago, no party leader had heard of him. Today they are courting him and many like him.

Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos, is one of the most influential progressive bloggers in America today and a symbol of an expanding Internet-based movement that has led the attacks on President Bush while challenging the Democratic establishment.

Moulitsas's message is clear and uncompromising. "The media elite has failed us," he says. "The political elite has failed us. Both parties. Republicans failed us because they can't govern. Democrats failed us because they can't get elected."

Many Democrats see this emerging community as a source of innovation, energy and ideas that will change the way politics and journalism are practiced, and one that will provide a new army of activists for a party badly in need of help.

But the arrival of the blogosphere as a political force has produced tensions within the Democratic coalition, including battles with party centrists over the direction of the party, which have led to questions about whether the often-angry rhetoric and uncompromising positions of the bloggers will drive the party too far left and endanger its chances of winning national elections.

Moulitsas offered his appraisal of the state of politics -- and a call for the net-roots activists to take over the party -- on the opening night of the first YearlyKos convention, which bought more than a thousand bloggers and activists here for a weekend of bonding and strategy discussions. It is the first step in what organizers hope will turn a loose-knit, virtual community into a long-lasting political movement.

Testifying to the significance of the blogosphere as an emerging political force was the parade of Democratic politicians who came to pay their respects, including Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and four prospective 2008 presidential candidates. "I pay as much attention [to the bloggers] as I can," Reid said by phone before his arrival for Saturday night's keynote address. "I think it's a voice I need to listen to. I listen."

The prospective candidates -- former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark -- all hope they can generate support among an activist constituency that has already expressed its hostility toward Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as a cautious and consummate insider.

Clark and Warner threw fancy receptions for the participants. And when Warner spoke at lunch on Saturday, the chairs in the hall were draped with T-shirts bearing his likeness and commemorating the conference. Although a centrist in ideology, Warner has already attracted attention within the blogging community and has been trying to build relationships around the country.

"I think it's evolving," he said of the net-roots community. "I think these guys and gals are potentially creating a new public square for democracy. And they are an unorganized, unorthodox jumble. What started as occasional voices venting is now turning into what could be a major force in American politics."

From a standing start, this community first demonstrated its power by supporting Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, helping him raise tens of millions of dollars and propelling him into front-runner status for the Democratic nomination until his candidacy imploded.

That experience showed the promise and the limitations of the net-based political movement. As the bloggers gathered here, many of the same questions remained unanswered about what is now a larger and more assertive voice in American politics.

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