'Net Roots' Event Becomes Democrats' Other National Convention

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 3, 2007

Last month, in a straw poll on the popular liberal blog Daily Kos, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the front-runner for her party's presidential nomination, won only 9 percent of the vote, lagging far behind former senator John Edwards (N.C.) with 36 percent and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) with 27 percent. She couldn't make it past 4 percent for most of the year.

But as the who's who of the progressive blogosphere -- the "Net roots" -- gather in Chicago for the YearlyKos convention, which started yesterday, Clinton will be there. Her attendance underscores two seemingly contradictory realities: blogs' growing influence as powerful backroom players in Democratic circles and the fact that they don't reflect the views of most Democrats, much less the general public.

"The fact is, the Net roots cannot win elections by ourselves," Markos "Kos" Moulitsas ZĂșniga, founder of Daily Kos and the namesake of the event, said this week. "But we can be a key component to a winning Democratic strategy."

The convention's chief organizer is not Kos but Gina Cooper, a former high school teacher who became a Net-roots activist and borrowed Moulitsas's nickname to inaugurate the conference last year. Next year it will have another name.

"This event is much larger than any one blog," Cooper explained, "though we're all a fan of Kos and certainly not distancing ourselves from his blog."

Last year in Las Vegas, the conference attracted 1,200 participants, including current Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark. This year at the McCormick Place Convention Center near downtown Chicago, more than 1,500 participants are expected, including the entire Democratic congressional leadership and all the Democratic presidential candidates.

Tomorrow, on the convention's busiest day, an "Ask the Leaders" forum in the morning will feature Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who heads the House Democratic Caucus, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Later in the afternoon, a panel with the Democratic candidates promises to be the highlight of the convention, with Clinton, not exactly the favorite of the progressive crowd, and the rest of the presidential field taking questions.

"Look, the fact all the major presidential candidates are attending means that the Net roots, in a very short time, has earned its seat on the big table," said Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network, which serves as a bridge between centrist Democrats and progressive bloggers. "These days you can't have a dialogue in Democratic politics without talking about what the Net roots are thinking. And how fast they've risen from the periphery to the center is a big cultural change -- and everyone's grappling with it."

There is no one leader, the name of the convention notwithstanding, and it's a disparate, unorganized community that's almost impossible to categorize. While the leading bloggers are in their 20s and 30s, the rank-and-file are older, in their 40s and 50s. The common assumption is that the Net roots is monolithic and full of ideologues. It is neither. It is made up of people who are mostly interested in getting Democrats elected -- and making sure Democrats stay in power.

But tension is inevitable. "The Net roots is a young, evolving, maturing group of individuals," said Jane Hamsher, a Hollywood producer who founded Firedoglake, a blog about women's issues that aggressively covered the trial of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. "We don't always agree on everything, much less do we directly reflect where the American public is at."

This year's planned sessions capture the state of affairs within the Net roots: blazingly partisan ("What to Do About the Religious Right"), technologically forward-thinking ("The Political Impact of Web Video Through 2008") and just a tad introspective (the introduction to the session "Blogging While Female" reads: "Admit it, ladies. You've all had the conversations. Why aren't there more prominent female bloggers?").

If there's one unifying issue that the Net roots can agree on, it's getting out of Iraq, sooner rather than later. For months, Clinton's unwillingness to apologize for her vote to authorize the war made her persona non grata among the Net roots, especially on Daily Kos.

In the past few months, however, Clinton's campaign has actively reached out to the Net roots. Clinton guest-blogged on Firedoglake and took questions from readers. Peter Daou, former author of the highly regarded Daou Report and Clinton's Internet director, regularly reaches out to individual bloggers. And Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton's campaign manager, held a conference call with bloggers when former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, husband of outed CIA operative Valerie Plame, endorsed Clinton.

Last week Howard Wolfson, Clinton's main spokesman, went on Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor," whose host, Bill O'Reilly, has called Daily Kos "a hate-filled" site and derided Clinton's attendance at YearlyKos as mere "pandering." Wolfson went out of his way to defend the Net roots and praise the convention.

Solis Doyle said, "We disagree with the bloggers sometimes, but we agree with them on many issues, and I take great pride that we've moved from 4 percent to 9 percent."

But she added: "I'm hoping to break into the double digits soon."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company