The Argument (By Matt Bai)
The New New Democrats
Billionaires, Bloggers, And the Battle To Remake Democratic Politics
By Matt Bai
Penguin Press. 316 pp. $25.95
Any doubt about the growing influence of the liberal blogosphere, aka the netroots, on the Democratic Party was laid to rest in August. At the Yearly Kos blogapalooza, the bloggers were flanked by a who's-who of the party's New Order (who have rallied behind the new kids on the block) and Old Order (who are now jumping on the bandwagon). Most tellingly, all the major presidential candidates showed up for a debate -- including Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose vote authorizing the war on Iraq has rendered her almost persona non grata to the netroots community. And moderating the debate was Matt Bai, a reporter for the New York Times magazine whose unsparing, incisive and altogether engaging book is a must read for anyone unaware of the seismic shift that's afoot among the Democrats.
In The Argument, Bai makes the case -- not entirely convincingly -- that the Democrats lack an argument, a big idea, about why they should govern. He poses questions to the Democrats that he doesn't get around to answering himself: "How do we, as a nation, move beyond the tired doctrines of a receding era? Who will explain the difficult truths of our new reality? What will the next version of American government look like?"
All fair queries that elicit an immediate, twofold response: What, exactly, does the Republican Party stand for? And with the GOP coming undone (the indictment of superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, the Hastert and Rove exits, the immigration bill debacle, the Iraq quagmire), has the stock narrative of "the Democrats don't stand for anything" -- touted even by Democratic insiders, to the delight of Republicans -- run its course? Is Bai looking for a bumper sticker slogan that cohesively articulates the Democratic agenda? Readers never find out.
What Bai does provide is a layered, colorful portrait of a party in transition. The story of the netroots is the story of everyday Americans armed with high speed Internet access -- Bai doesn't bring up the glaring digital divide, especially in poor areas of the country -- and a visceral disdain for Republicans in general and Bush in particular. It's a tale of fiery newcomers to politics, many of whom woke up to the aftershocks of Sept. 11 (domestic spying, Abu Ghraib), demanding to be seated at the table.
Bai introduces us to Rob Stein, an Albert Brooks look-a-like with a "PowerPoint business plan for the progressive movement," and to Tom Matzzie, the Washington director of MoveOn.org who is a phone call away from Capitol heavy hitters. Efforts of operatives such as Stein are bankrolled by deep-pocketed progressives, the billionaire George Soros among them, who seek to match the GOP's "$300 million 'message machine' " with think tanks of their own. Bai visits the homes of liberal Hollywood bigwigs Rob Reiner and Norman Lear, and he tracks the tumultuous beginnings -- and early reforms -- of Howard Dean's chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. He even gets a sit-down with Bill Clinton, whose centrist third-way triangulation has been continually derided by the netroots.
And, most effectively, he uses an earlier visit to the first Yearly Kos convention in 2006 to examine the netroots culture. There are elite bloggers such as Jerome Armstrong of MyDD.com and Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos.com, the netroots' first political rock star; below them are the not-quite-elite bloggers; and below them is everyone else. Still, as Bai observes, meritocracy rules. DailyKos is where Gina Cooper, a high school teacher from Tennessee, finds her voice and sharpens it. Over a breakfast of pancakes, it's Cooper who provides, as Bai notes, the most acute summation behind the soul of the political blogosphere: "People need something to believe in. And if they can believe in you, then they can believe in themselves. No one's going to give me permission to just suddenly speak with authority. I just have to do it."
But in fixating on a big idea that updates the Democratic bastions of the New Deal and Great Society, Bai, despite writing an energetic and timely narrative, misses a big idea himself. Every day in the blogosphere -- often in crude, crass language, many times in careful, detailed analysis -- an argument is being laid out: against the war in Iraq, in support of minority groups and immigrants, for a government of the people. In other words, a government that works, not an empty, catchy slogan. *
Jose Antonio Vargas covers politics and the Internet for The Post.