By Dan Balz and Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 5, 2007
CHICAGO, Aug. 4 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York walked into the lion's den here Saturday, drawing applause as well as boos and hisses from an audience of progressive bloggers during a presidential candidates forum in which she became the target of sharp criticism from several of her Democratic rivals.
The forum at the second annual Yearly Kos convention drew all but one of the Democratic presidential candidates, and it helped cement the bloggers as an increasingly significant constituency inside the party. The 90-minute session displayed many of the qualities for which the blogosphere is known -- it was free-wheeling, occasionally raucous and consistently passionate, with candidates competing with one another to earn the affection of the audience.
In contrast to past debates, Clinton was on the firing line because of her often-difficult relationship with bloggers over her initial support for the Iraq war, and because her opponents saw a chance to paint her as the Establishment candidate before an audience hostile to inside-the-Beltway power politics.
Clinton emerged with some scrapes but also was praised by some prominent bloggers. She tried to court the progressive audience, praising its members for aggressively standing up to President Bush and the right, while avoiding making statements that might compromise her during a general election campaign if she becomes the Democratic nominee.
Clinton came under attack for declining to join former senator John Edwards (N.C.), who is quite popular with bloggers, and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in pledging to not take campaign contributions from Washington lobbyists.
"I think my party, the Democratic Party, the party of the people, ought to say from this day forward we will never take a dime from a Washington lobbyist," Edwards said to rising applause from the audience of more than 1,000.
Asked whether she would agree with that, Clinton said, "I don't think, based on my 35 years of fighting for what I believe in, anybody seriously believes I'm going to be influenced by a lobbyist or a particular interest."
With that there were groans and hisses, and Clinton, who had braced for such a reaction and seemingly had waited for it through nearly an hour of debate, responded: "I've been waiting for this. This gives us a real sense of reality with my being here." She added, "A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans."
When the moderator, New York Times Magazine writer Matt Bai, turned back to Obama a few minutes later, the senator immediately challenged Clinton's position.
"I disagree with the notion that lobbyists don't have disproportionate influence," he said. "The insurance and drug companies spent $1 billion in lobbying over the last 10 years. Now Hillary, you were talking earlier about the efforts you made back in '93 [trying to reform health care]. Now you can't tell me that that money did not have a difference. They are not spending that just because they are contributing to the public interest."
With that the audience erupted in cheers of approval, and Edwards, sitting on Clinton's right, joined in the applause.
"I'm losing control," Bai quipped, before giving Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) the floor. Kucinich turned the issue of campaign contributions back on Edwards, asking whether he would be willing to stop taking money from hedge fund executives.
Edwards declined, saying he will continue to accept donations from people who are not Washington lobbyists.
The debate featured seven of the eight Democratic candidates: Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Kucinich, New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska). Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) skipped the forum because he is on a book tour.
Dodd was as animated as he has been at any debate, and he led the call for public financing of political campaigns. Richardson pressed his experience as a former United Nations ambassador and a sitting governor. Gravel derided his rivals as good people trapped in a corrupt system. "All politicians walk in the mud," he said.
When the candidates were asked about the Iraq war, Kucinich said Democrats should use the power of the purse to cut off funding. Clinton said Senate rules make it difficult for Democrats to do so because they need 60 votes to shut down debate. Dodd responded, "It's better to get 25 votes for something meaningful" than 60 votes for something that isn't.
All the candidates participated in separate breakout sessions with the bloggers, most immediately after the debate. Clinton initially said she could not do a breakout session because of a scheduling conflict, but agreed to one before the debate when it became a new point of contention with the bloggers.
She arrived shortly after noon and immediately put on a charm offensive. When her microphone malfunctioned, she quipped, "Vast right-wing conspiracy." As she began her opening remarks, she acknowledged her tenuous relationship with the bloggers. "I'm aware that, you know, not everyone says nice things about me. It's a burden I have to bear."
Then she thanked them "for caring so much and being so involved in helping us create a modern progressive movement in America. What you have done in a relatively short period of time is really to stand up against the right-wing noise machine."
She then took questions for about 30 minutes, at times associating herself with the audience's views, at times standing apart. She defended, for example, the welfare overhaul passed during her husband's administration after one questioner urged her to say she would repeal it as president.
The only time she was booed during the session was when she said she is a fan of the Chicago Cubs, not the Chicago White Sox.
Edwards, who was the leader in the most recent unscientific straw poll by the Daily Kos blog, continued his attack on Clinton during his breakout session. Highlighting the difference between himself and Clinton on taking money from Washington lobbyists, Edwards said to boisterous applause, "The choice in front of America is very clear."
Clinton's performances drew mixed reviews. "Hillary's visit was equivalent to a visit from a head of state to a country just recently recognized with diplomatic status," said Andrew Rasiej of TechPresident, the go-to site on how the candidates are campaigning online.
"Look, she's here because she's just pandering, like everyone else, to find an area of alignment," said Matt Stoller, formerly of the popular blog My DD, who recently founded Open Left.
Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the founder of Daily Kos, for which the conference is named, gave Clinton good marks. "I think she did very well," he said after the candidate forum. "I think she's done a great job of defusing the hostility."
"We've got a ways to go," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said when it was over. "There are others here who have historically done better in this community. We obviously hope that we will continue to do better and better."