By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008
AUSTIN, July 17 -- Now this is some serious smackdown, blogger style.
On Friday, a Who's Who of online conservatives will gather at the Renaissance Hotel in the picturesque Texas Hill Country here for an inaugural two-day conference called RightOnline. At the same time, less than 12 miles south in the city's downtown sprawl, the heart of the online liberal community is on its second of four days at the Austin Convention Center for Netroots Nation.
Coincidence? Of course not. RightOnline, sponsored by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, planned it this way.
"We knew that Netroots Nation was holding its conference in Austin this weekend, so we looked at it more as an opportunity to meet them head-on," says Erik Telford, the 24-year-old who is helping organize the conservative gathering.
The speakers include David All, co-founder of SlateCard, the conservative answer to ActBlue, the Dems' online PAC; Robert Bluey, the Heritage Foundation staffer who hosts a weekly meeting of conservative bloggers; and David Almacy, the Bush White House's former Internet director (yes, there is such a job).
Telford knows the right is at a disadvantage online. At the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee in February, for example, he remembers how confused many middle-aged and older Republicans were by the job title on his business card: "New Media Manager."
"They thought I was the new hire, you know, the new manager coming in," Telford says. He subsequently changed his title to "Manager of New Media." "It still takes some explaining," he adds.
If the political blogosphere is a boxing ring -- noisy, boisterous, full of punches -- then, for this week at least, Austin is Vegas. ("I think it's really of kind of funny. It's like they have to justify their existence by comparing themselves to us," Gina Cooper, a former high school teacher and the chief organizer behind Netroots Nation, says of RightOnline.)
And this weekend's dueling blogapaloozas glaringly expose the fact that, as many conservatives concede, Netroots and the right-roots don't belong in the same ring, at least right now. Consider the numbers. About 500 people -- including 30 credentialed press -- are scheduled to fill a hotel ballroom for RightOnline. Across town, at least 2,500 people -- including 200 credentialed press -- are strolling through the convention center for the third annual Netroots Nation, formerly called YearlyKos.
Also consider the casts: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, all party bigwigs, are among the speakers at Netroots Nation. At RightOnline, the speakers include Michelle Malkin, Robert Novak and Grover Norquist, icons in the conservative wing of the party but not exactly the GOP's leadership.
But the blogosphere is more than just a boxing ring. On the right and more so on the left, the majority of bloggers, after all, are average citizens activated by the Internet. They're talking back to politics and pols, to Washington, because . . . well, who's going stop them?
Some in the right-roots say that when it comes to online organizing and mobilizing the grass roots, the GOP is where the Democrats were in 2001. Back then, many liberals were disappointed by their party's leaders and felt they gave only lip service to their liberal base. These days, Republicans say they're in the same position. They're upset at the establishment -- because of members of Congress embroiled in corruption and expanded government spending, for instance -- and feel the party has lost its way.
To Micah Sifry, co-founder of TechPresident, a bipartisan group blog that chronicles the Web's impact on politics, the bloggers on the left are "maturing from rambunctious teenagers to young adulthood," while the right-roots is "still in its infancy."
To be fair, the right-roots has had some successes, among them derailing Harriet Miers's nomination to the Supreme Court and battling immigration reform. And, as with the left, a loose structure of sorts has emerged. At Heritage's blogger lunches on Tuesdays, Bluey serves as a bridge of sorts between official Washington (say, House Minority Leader John Boehner) and noted bloggers (such as Soren Dayton of TheNextRight.com). Popular blogs such as RedState.com are giving more prominence to local and state blogs, a way to further involve the grass roots. Yesterday, RedState also featured a blog post by Donald Rumsfeld on its front page.
"The point of RightOnline is to get the conservatives focused and engaged and all sitting in the same room together," says RedState co-founder Erick Erickson, who's one of the speakers at the conference. "Up until now, we didn't really have an answer to something like Netroots Nation. We were all doing our own thing, not really working together."
Adds Telford, who until late Thursday afternoon was working the phones and shuttling between Americans for Prosperity's Austin offices and the hotel to make sure everything goes according to plan: "I think this is the perfect time and the perfect place to tell the Netroots: 'Yes, we're here, too. Yes, we've arrived.' "