Obama's Rise Sidelines Bloggers
By Jose Antonio Vargas
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- As Sen. Barack Obama continues a strategy of appealing to Republicans and independents, an influential and vocal group within his own party -- the liberal blogosphere -- faces an identity crisis of sorts.
Last week, Markos Moulitsas, founder of the popular liberal blog Daily Kos, accused Obama of embracing a "right-wing talking point" as he campaigned and said, "I don't want to go into the next election starting off with half the country already not wanting to vote for Democrats. We've done that in 2004, 2000." In a blog post headlined "Obama slams Gore," Moulitsas wrote: "Psst, Barack, slamming John Kerry and Al Gore is what Republicans do. Last time I checked, Gore won his election. And really, is Obama going to argue now that the nation was divided because of the Democrats' fault? Is that the latest right-wing talking point he wants to peddle?"
A blizzard of comments came pouring in, some 256 pages in all. Many agreed with Moulitsas. "Obama seems to be running against the (failed, ideological, divisive, etc) Democratic party as as whole, more than he runs against Republicans," one reader wrote. "This makes me VERY uneasy about him." Others did not. "What's wrong with trying to work together? If Hillary is elected, is anything going to change?" a reader asked. "Red will still hate Blue and will still hate Red. As a country we need to move past this."
At the heart of the tension lies an important challenge for a growing community that has helped redefine and re-energize the left wing of the Democratic Party. What happens to the brawling, highly partisan netroots movement when the party's leading candidate campaigns on bipartisanship -- and wins on it?
"The netroots is still trying to figure him out. Obama doesn't fit our style. He's not combative. He's not aggressive. He doesn't talk about Republicans the way the way you'd hope he would," said Dean Barker, co-founder of Blue Hampshire, a leading Granite State blog. Laura Clawson, another Blue Hampshire blogger and also, as MissLaura, a contributing editor on Daily Kos, adds: "I've gone to a lot of events here in New Hampshire and have seen Obama up close. I myself have been struggling to get a handle on him -- how to fit with him, what the excitement around his candidacy means."
While the netroots has no leader or spokesman -- Moulitsas, now a columnist for Newsweek, is arguably its most recognizable face -- it is, at core, a loosely knit community of intense partisans who want to elect Democrats and move the entire national conversation to the left. In 2003 and 2004, the then-newborn community overwhelmingly supported former Vermont governor Howard Dean, now head of the Democratic National Committee, in his bid for the presidency. (Moulitsas even did some consulting work for Dean's campaign.) This cycle, however, the community hasn't thrown its arms around a candidate. "There hasn't been a unifying figure," Barker said.
The results of the monthly straw poll on Daily Kos have been telling. Clinton's vote for the Iraq war and association with the 1990s Democratic strategy of triangulation -- anathema to today's liberal activists -- quickly saw her relegated to the bottom of the heap as a symbol of the Washington establishment. For the first six months of 2007, she didn't make it past 4 percent in the Kos poll.
John Edwards, in contrast, has consistently led the straw poll -- thanks, in part, to a more than two-year courtship of liberal bloggers. Today, his campaign is overseen by Joe Trippi, Dean's former campaign manager and a certified netroots hero.
But Obama has never won it. And his relationships with big-name bloggers, such as Jerome Amstrong of MyDD, Jame Hamsher of Firedoglake and Matt Stoller of OpenLeft, has been strained. "What Obama did in Iowa, getting all those young people to vote, was really inspirational. It was a miraculous achievement," Hamsher said. "But the idea that you can reach out to Republicans and they'll work with you isn't so convincing to people who have watched the Republicans in Congress. There are those who are worried that it's a false hope he's giving."
Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, a San Francisco-based liberal think tank, has an explanation for this evolving dynamic between Obama and the netroots. "Markos and company are the warriors. And they are still in battle mode, and are very hardened about the capacity of the Republicans to truly play hard ball. They have their guard up and are waiting for the counter punch," Leyden said. "It's hard to get your head out of war mode. But they will come around."
Two years ago, Obama tried reaching out, frustrated by bloggers' reaction to Sens. Patricky Leahy and Russ Feingold after they voted to confirm Supreme Court nominee John Roberts (Obama voted against his appointment). "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 in a posting on Daily Kos. "They have beaten us twice by energizing their base with red meat rhetoric and single-minded devotion and discipline to their agenda. In order to beat them, it is necessary for Democrats to get some backbone, give as good as they get, brook no compromise, drive out Democrats who are interested in 'appeasing' the right wing, and enforce a more clearly progressive agenda.
"I think this perspective misreads the American people. From traveling throughout Illinois and more recently around the country, I can tell you that Americans are suspicious of labels and suspicious of jargon."
Since that posting, Obama has had little interaction with the netroots besides attending the Democratic debate at last summer's Yearly Kos convention, the netroots' annual gathering. David Axelrod, Obama's chief adviser, said that although Obama believes there's a "great passion on the Internet and a great sense of anger" about what's happened in the country, "Obama thinks that we can't affect change unless we build the largest possible coalition -- Democrats with independents and Republicans."
Even before last week's online onslaught, Obama was a subject of intense online criticism. Obama was attacked when Robert F. Bauer, general counsel to his campaign, argued for pardoning Scooter Libby in order to return the focus to President Bush. Hamsher of Firedoglake wasn't convinced. "It's an extremely cynical argument, and I really can't imagine what the Obama campaign was thinking," she wrote. When a bill granting immunity to telecoms who have aided the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program was supported by Senate Democrats and Republicans, bloggers asked their readers to contact Dodd, who's against the bill. Wrote DailyKos' Moulitsas: "Dodd is now the go-to guy. Losing faith in Obama." Things got worse when John Aravosis of Americablog pointed out that among those participating in Obama's "Embrace the Change" gospel concert tour in South Carolina was singer Donnie McClurkin, who has talked about his own fight against gay tendencies and has called homosexuality a "curse."
Following Obama's win in Iowa, MyDD's Armstrong voiced further skepticism.
"Obama doesn't want partisan Democrats like the netroots on his side, so we'll see if, when we start having Democratic primaries, he can win on his own terms or not," he told the Trail. "I was rooting that it would come down to Edwards and Clinton -- that to me represents a battle of Democratic values and ideas. Obama's candidacy is really just personality-driven, wrapped with quasi-religious overtures of 'believe' and 'hope' and 'unity' and 'trust'. He's the first mega-church candidate."
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