By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 2008
AUSTIN, July 20 -- "Yep, the way it's looking, we might actually win this thing . . ."
That's Markos Moulitsas talking, a.k.a. "Kos" to everyone here at Netroots Nation, the four-day liberal blogapalooza that ended Sunday at the Austin Convention Center. He's got a head cold, which explains his hoarse, strained voice, and by "we," he means the Netroots and their candidate of choice, Sen. Barack Obama. If the Netroots can be compared to high school -- still maturing, somewhat cliquish but definitely a community -- then Obama, as the presumptive nominee, had been voted Most Likely to Succeed.
Hardest Worker and Best Dressed honors went to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who kicked off Saturday morning's program with a freewheeling 40-minute "Ask the Speaker" session. ("Damn, Nancy looks grrreat in that pantsuit," a blogger was overheard saying.) Most Popular would go to Al Gore, who brought the crowd of more than 2,000 conventioneers to its feet with his surprise appearance, repeatedly asking bloggers to visit WeCanSolveIt.org, home to his new group, the Alliance for Climate Protection.
But Obama, who leads Sen. John McCain in recent national polls, is Topic A among the Netroots, his fate somewhat married to theirs. Five years ago liberal bloggers made a name for themselves at a time of defeat; Republicans controlled not just the White House but both houses in Congress. They craved a fight, and President Bush was their punching bag.
But these are changing times, and Obama, in his calls for getting past blue vs. red America, and in his recent positions on issues such as telecom immunity, is somewhat of an enigma. With the Dems taking back Congress in 2006 and the prospect of an Obama victory come November, many in the influential Netroots are left in a precarious, ambiguous position. The question is, who needs whom: Does Obama need the Netroots, or vice versa?
Kos, never one to mince words, is blunt.
"It's not a question of who needs whom. Fact is, the Netroots are not going to be the decisive factor," Kos says, fidgeting with his iPhone as he sits on a lounge chair at the Hilton, across the street from the convention center. "But having said that, we're an activist set of people: We're engaged, we give money, we put boots on the ground. That's why when many of us had a genuine disagreement with Obama on FISA" -- Obama voted for a bill that provided retroactive immunity to telecom companies -- "we let him know about it."
Though his site, Daily Kos, is arguably the liberal blogosphere's most popular hub, Kos is not the Netroots. He's just at the center of the quad, with other blogs filling the rest of the always packed, often clangorous hallways. And with each passing year, the crowd gets bigger, the tent wider.
At the first confab, then called YearlyKos and held in Las Vegas, some 1,200 attended, most of them blog jockeys who knew each other only by their online names. Last year at least 1,500 attendees made the trek to Chicago, including all but one of the eight Democratic presidential candidates, who sat down for a 90-minute forum. Among those present were bloggers, pols and their minions, policy analysts and think tank reps.
This past weekend, those same types showed up, plus tech firms such as Wired for Change, hawking an online product called Salsa that helps groups engage people through e-mail lists. There's no denying that the gathering has crossed the mainstream threshold when swag bags, complete with El Sabroso Salsita salsa chips, were handed out alongside condoms from the Center for Constitutional Rights.
As in any community, as in many high schools, Netroots can appear both self-segregating -- black bloggers at one table, Latinos at another and gays at the next -- and not diverse enough. After the Q&A session with Pelosi, in which the first questions asked were about impeaching President Bush and Vice President Cheney, the FISA bill and abstinence-only education, some black bloggers complained that they weren't enough questions about rising gas and food prices.
"It reflects a bit of skew," Cheryl Contee, a member of the convention's advisory board, says of the questions to Pelosi. Contee, who is black, runs Fission, a social media consulting firm. "Folks in the convention have to keep in mind that not everyone who considers themselves a part of the Netroots is here, and many of them aren't as concerned about, say, FISA or impeachment. They want jobs."
Obama's standing here, especially with big-name bloggers such as Matt Stoller of OpenLeft, has proved complicated. Two years ago, frustrated by bloggers' reaction to two Democratic senators who voted to confirm John Roberts as chief justice, Obama wrote a posting on Daily Kos:
"According to the storyline that drives many advocacy groups and Democratic activists -- a storyline often reflected in comments on this blog -- we are up against a sharply partisan, radically conservative, take-no-prisoners Republican party," wrote Obama, who voted no on the Roberts confirmation.
Last year, at the height of the primary campaign, Obama often placed second behind former senator John Edwards in the monthly and unscientific Daily Kos straw polls. In October, he fell third behind Edwards and Sen. Chris Dodd. When Obama examined former president Ronald Reagan's legacy earlier this year and said it "changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," a blizzard of comments hit blogs, many of them critical.
A few weeks ago, after Obama's upcoming vote for the FISA bill provoked angry comments on his own social networking site, My.BarackObama.com, Obama posted an explanation on his blog. "Democracy cannot exist without strong differences. And going forward, some of you may decide that my FISA position is a deal breaker," Obama wrote.
"Think about it: Netroots was born at a time when the Democrats were in opposition, and it's learning how to be a force of good when the Democrats are in power -- and could have more power next year," says Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network. A speaker at the confab, Rosenberg is a bridge of sorts between Official Washington (he worked in the first Clinton White House) and New Washington (he wrote the foreword to "Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics," which Kos co-authored).
Adds Andrew Rasiej, also a speaker at the convention and founder of Personal Democracy Forum, an online think tank that analyzes how the Internet affects politics: "For most everyone in the Netroots, the main goal right now is get Obama elected. Period. Now how the Netroots and Obama move forward after November, if he is elected, is another issue."
The mood between Obama and the Netroots has warmed in the past few months. Obama, who's on his first overseas tour since becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee, sent a 10-minute video greeting to the conventioneers.
"We've had some disagreements in the past, and we'll have some disagreements in the future," Obama says in the video. "I promise to continue to listen to your concerns, take them seriously and discuss them respectfully."
The audience claps warmly, and among those watching are Edmundo Rocha, of Houston, and Manuel Guzman, of Tucson, Ariz., Latino bloggers who recently launched The Sanctuary, a site written by a multi-ethnic group of bloggers concerned about migrant rights and immigration reform. The group sent a list of detailed, pointed questions to Obama. They're still waiting to get adequate responses, they add.
"I've been waiting to see just how much he's going to involve the Netroots in the way he thinks about policies," says Guzman, who voted for Obama during the primaries but says he was "disappointed" with Obama's FISA vote.
"The Netroots are not going away. It's only going to get bigger," Guzman continues. "We're all learning to live with each other."