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Democratic rifts apparent at liberal Netroots Nation conference

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010; 4:45 PM

LAS VEGAS -- For all the talk of a splintered GOP base, with "tea party" conservatives squaring off against establishment Republicans, the Democrats have serious divisions of their own.

Democratic officials were hoping that after 18 months of deep frustration by many in the party's liberal base over what they believe is President Obama's watered-down agenda, the prospect of losing ground in the November midterm elections would be enough to heal wounds. But as Netroots Nation, a conference of 2,100 liberal activists, opened here Thursday, it was clear that anger among some prominent progressives is still raw -- and it could imperil some Democrats this fall.

Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos blog and an organizer of the first such annual conference five years ago, said he and his followers are disinclined to help Democratic candidates simply to preserve the party's big majorities.

"There's a lot of Democrats I'll be happy to see go," Moulitsas said in an interview. "I'll celebrate when Blanche Lincoln is out of the Senate. There is a price to be paid for inaction and incompetence. We're not getting much done with 59 [Democratic senators], so if we're down to 54, who cares?"

Moulitsas went on to suggest that a smaller Democratic majority in the House might be better for advancing a more progressive agenda. "If 20 Blue Dogs lost their seats, nobody's going to care," he said. "That's their problem and I'm not going to cry about them. To me, a more cohesive caucus might be a better deal moving forward than one in which the Blue Dogs need to be appeased."

His bold statement came as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) are scheduled to address the convention Saturday and take questions from the audience. Obama is not planning to speak to the conference. The lone administration official dispatched here is Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former congressman and the only Republican in Obama's Cabinet -- a fact that was not lost on attendees.

Democratic officials dispute the notion that their majorities have not resulted in meaningful change, citing health-care and financial regulations and other reform measures.

"As a party, we respect the role that people like him and his blog play and understand that their role is to try to push the envelope further than it might be pushed otherwise," said a senior Democratic official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "This has been the busiest and most successful Congress since the Great Depression and it's been accomplished with big majorities. I don't think anyone can argue that it would be better if Democrats are in the minority or have smaller majorities."

But Moulitsas's views were echoed by other progressive leaders who spoke on panels Thursday.

"Progressive doesn't necessarily mean Democratic," said Arshad Hasan, executive director of Democracy for America, the liberal grass-roots advocacy group founded by former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean.

Hasan moderated a panel, "Primaries Matter: Reclaiming the Democratic Majority," that featured Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (D), who with the backing of the progressive movement waged an unsuccessful primary campaign against Lincoln.

"We want to build a better party," Hasan said. "We're not just looking for people who are as liberal as possible. We're looking for fighters. We're looking for truth-tellers."

The panelists gave voice to lingering disappointment over Halter's failed bid. Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, had particularly harsh words for Bill Clinton, whose full-throated endorsement of Lincoln is credited with helping her win.

"It's tough to see someone you've believed in betray you in a big way," Green said of the former president. "We need to pick our heroes. . . . I think it would be sad if we went through this entire conference without calling out Bill Clinton for what he did."

Ilyse Hogue, political director of MoveOn.org, said her organization's members helped raise more than $2.5 million to help Halter's campaign.

"That was because we believe in" Halter, she said. "So when the party operatives come back and say to us that was money down the toilet, I say that does not mean we would have handed over $2.5 million to you, because you have got to help us believe in you to rally that support. It is not a transitive property."

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