Liberals on the Strip
Wag the Blog
Ryan Lizza, The New Republic/Candide's Notebooks, June 29, 2006
It's the first night of Yearly Kos, and some thousand liberal bloggers and dozens of reporters are winding their way into a windowless conference room at the Riviera Hotel to hear Markos Moulitsas, founder of the political website Daily Kos, deliver the evening's keynote address. For many of the bloggers, it's the first time they've met in the flesh, and, as they recognize one another's online names, which are written on cards hanging from orange lanyards, they break out into excited conversations. As one blogger later puts it, "We're all celebrities to each other."
But someone is missing: Armando. A favorite blogger and foreign policy wonk, Armando earned the privilege of posting on the front page of Daily Kos. But, before the festivities began in Las Vegas, National Review Online revealed this hero of the liberal blogosphere to be Armando Lloréns-Sar, a corporate lawyer in Puerto Rico who has represented Wal-Mart and Clorox. Even though this information is a matter of public record, and even though Lloréns-Sar's picture and affiliation are listed on his firm's website, his unmasking sent shockwaves through the Daily Kos community and led Lloréns-Sar to quit the site--and, according to bloggers here, cancel his appearance at the convention, lest his pastime create a conflict for his employers.
Many topics will be discussed this weekend, but the bloggers keep coming back to Armando. They don't mind that Armando is a corporate lawyer or that he practices his trade for corporations. What really upsets them is that his seems like a cautionary tale about what can happen as the movement matures and their newfound celebrity threatens their anonymity. In hushed conversations, they refer bitterly to the "outing of Armando."
Their anxiety is only heightened by the fact that Las Vegas, according to Kos blogger SusanG, is their own, albeit voluntary, "coming out." And, in many ways, it is a heady experience. How could it not be? When Mark Warner spends over $50,000 on a party complete with an Elvis impersonator, thrill rides, and ice sculptures; Wesley Clark hosts an open-bar soirée at the Hard Rock Casino; and Bill Richardson buys everyone breakfast, the so-called "netroots" start to feel a little special. SusanG sums up the heady mix of narcissism and euphoria: "It seems like every fourth person you run into is here covering the phenomenon of ... us. We're worth it, too. We are something else."
But there is still a discomfiting sense among the bloggers here that, as with Armando, nothing in their world will be the same after this weekend. They are moving from faceless writers talking in what sometimes seems like an echo chamber to a national movement courted by presidential candidates and covered seriously by the press. They are finally meeting the politicians they bash and praise from the safety of their basements. Las Vegas could be the beginning of a new era of blogger influence and authority. Or it might just be the weekend they all sold out.
This uncertainty over what will happen at the first major convention for liberal bloggers drives Yearly Kos participants into a strange and ritualistic dance. Throughout the four-day convention, bloggers, politicians, and reporters circle one another like a trio of underwater species not quite sure who eats whom anymore. The bloggers alternatively ridicule and suck up to the reporters. The politicians prostrate themselves before the bloggers one minute and then roll their eyes at them in off-the-record pow-wows with the "mainstream media" the next. The press smile and yuk it up with the bloggers during the day and escape to decadent, MSM-only meals at night. All three groups seem to agree that everything in their respective spheres is changing because of the blogs, but nobody is quite sure how.
For their part, the bloggers are at a turning point. In Las Vegas, they are glimpsing their first taste of the establishment and watching as some of their leaders actually join it. "What they seem to be struggling with," says a Democratic operative here with the bloggers for the weekend, "is when the rebels become the establishment, are you anything more than being rebellious? What does it mean when Markos has a press secretary and gives a speech in a ballroom?"
The flesh-and-blood mingling with the reporters they excoriate and the politicians they prod is causing some cognitive dissonance. One night, I sit across the dinner table from Christy Hardin-Smith, a former prosecutor who blogs under the name of ReddHedd at firedoglake, the go-to site for all things Valerie Plame. We dine on a five-course meal at a swank trattoria in Mandalay Bay that was paid for by a liberal Washington organization. The next day, at a panel devoted to political journalism, Hardin-Smith insists that the problem with Washington reporters is they are addicted to the "cocktail weenie" circuit in Washington. The previous night's dinner was off the record, but I can say without breaking any rules that the appetizer was beef carpaccio, not pigs in a blanket, and Hardin-Smith seemed to enjoy every bite. Her point about the Washington press may be valid--getting too close to those you cover can poison good journalism--but most reporters are about as compromised by weenies as Hardin-Smith was by her carpaccio. Later, passing her in the hall after one of the conclaves of bloggers and 2008 candidates, she seems glad to be out of the house, learning a few things. "I'm a stay-at-home mom who blogs all day and isn't used to being around this many people," she says, noting how exhausted she is after doing four press interviews in one day. "This is freakishly large."
Even the authors of the blog manifesto Crashing the Gate, Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong, have not so much crashed the gates as been politely invited inside and offered a comfortable chair and a cocktail. Armstrong is a political consultant to Warner, the former governor of Virginia and one of the hottest Democrats in the party. His portfolio is helping Warner navigate the blog world, but the word is he is already growing beyond that ghetto into a broader strategic role. His co-author, Moulitsas, polishes off the rough edges that have made him a famous agitator on his blog and spends his Sunday morning as a roundtable participant on "Meet the Press," where he sounds less like a revolutionary and more like a pundit who has mastered the art of the sound bite. "I think what we've seen is that actually the people who read these blogs are a real cross section of the Democratic Party, a real cross section of America," he smoothly tells Tim Russert.
In addition to figuring out their relationship with the establishment, the bloggers in Vegas are busy debating their direction. Aside from the timing of Karl Rove's presumed indictment (oops), the most passionate conversations in the small knots of activists I interview is over whether to follow the lead of blogfather Moulitsas and define the nascent online activist movement as strictly a machine that helps Democrats win or to create one that is more ideologically pure and presses for a set of specific principles.
I am thrust into this debate on the first morning of the conference at a small presentation by the Progressive Majority, an organization that recruits and runs liberal candidates. Like the politicians courting the bloggers, many liberal groups are here trying to push back against Moulitsas's pro-partisan vision. Gloria Totten, Progressive Majority's president, admits she's only "an intermittent reader" of blogs, partly because she's frustrated by their emphasis on partisanship rather than progressivism. Raj Shukla, the group's Wisconsin finance director, cautions that bloggers and their readers are wildly unrepresentative of the Democratic Party, noting that they are mostly male, well-off, and white. "Just look around this conference," he says.
The divide between the partisans and the ideologues is generational. In addition to being white and wealthy, the average Daily Kos reader is about 45 years old, which is clear from all the gray hair at the Riviera. What emerges from the weekend is that the leadership and public faces of the liberal blogosphere are young, while the rank and file is middle-aged. The twenty- and thirtysomethings have created a space for the forty- and fiftysomethings of the old New Left to reconnect with the political activism of their youth. The young, tech-savvy pioneers of the actual blogs tend to be pro-partisan, while the baby-boomers are pro-ideology. "Because we never knew a time as activists when Democrats were the natural ruling party (pre-1994)," 32-year-old Chris Bowers, who blogs at MyDD, says via e-mail, "my guess is that we tend to understand the need for partisan-based opposition and new tactics quicker than others."
One of the ideas popular in the immediate wake of Yearly Kos is that the bloggers are now entrenched as another interest group in the party. They brought this on themselves. By taking on the trappings of an interest group--a convention with politicians--they have made themselves an easy target for the label. But Yearly Kos is radically different from, say, an afl-cio convention or naral meeting, in that finding the precise erogenous zone of the netroots isn't easy, as Warner and others learn. It is heretical to say this in some Democratic circles, but, while the bloggers and their readers are obviously liberal, they aren't like any other party interest group.
There is no single issue that binds them together, and they have no discernable agenda. In fact, the whole phenomenon has overturned the traditional understanding of how groups organize themselves to affect politicians. Tom Schaller, a professor at the University of Maryland who was a front-page blogger on Daily Kos in 2004, points out that the cornerstone of interest group theory since 1965, Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action, holds that small homogenous minorities can usually beat out diffuse, heterogeneous majorities because the cost of organizing for the larger group will always be prohibitive. For example, it's easier for sugar producers to press for higher sugar tariffs than it is for consumers to band together to lower them. "The Internet is partially the answer to this problem," Schaller says. By lowering the costs of organization, the Web has allowed huge numbers of online liberals to organize themselves in ways that only the labor unions or parties previously could. If the movement continues to grow in size and influence, it will, ironically, limit the power of the Democrats' single-issue groups. In their book, Moulitsas and Armstrong savage the Democrats' interest groups--just as Al From and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) have done for the last 25 years. Their critique is seeping down into the netroots. In a new poll of MoveOn.org's members, 47 percent agree that "Democrats are too close to single-issue groups, like those that favor gun control, gay rights, or a woman's right to choose."
The attendance at various panels tells the same story. The labor roundtable attracts no more than two or three dozen attendees. Meanwhile, a panel called "Meta Kos"-- featuring Moulitsas--attracts hundreds of Yearly Kos attendees (a.k.a. Kossacks). Their talk is not about tax policy or abortion but issues like the outing of Armando. "What happened to Armando is absolutely horrible," says Moulitsas.
Perhaps it's just because the medium is so new, but there are few things the bloggers like talking about more than themselves. In Las Vegas, the medium is the message.
No politician understands this better than Warner. At least, he thought he did. It's Friday night, and Warner is surrounded by sweaty and boozy bloggers 1,000 feet above the desert in the Stratosphere Hotel's observation tower. Blues Brothers imitators have just finished their set, and Warner grabs their microphone. "This is the new public square!" he shouts. "This is the new face of democracy and the new face of the Democratic Party!" The bloggers cheer, clash drinks, and high-five. The two Blues Brothers outfit Warner in shades and a fedora, and the three of them dance to "Mustang Sally." "Bill Clinton ain't got nothing on this guy!" an impressed Blues Brother--Elwood, I believe--says. A little later, an Iowan begs Warner to take his turn on one of the terrifying thrill rides at the top of the Stratosphere. "He said, 'If you do the ride, you've got my vote,'" Armstrong tells me. "He did the ride."
It sure beats pandering on the issues. Under Armstrong's tutelage, Warner has become one of the more sophisticated 2008 prospects when it comes to seducing the bloggers. He was the first one to agree to attend the convention. He dropped at least $50,000 on the party. He spoke at the convention the following day and blanketed the ballroom with black Warner t-shirts emblazoned with the Yearly Kos logo. His PAC set up an information booth in the exhibition hall.
And then the whole effort seems to backfire, exposing exactly the new rifts that are on display all weekend--the establishment versus the rank-and-file bloggers; the partisans versus the ideologues. While meeting with a group of bloggers, Warner is confronted by one Edward Anderson, who forces him to fess up to the $50,000 party tab. "We don't want to join the consultant class," he scolds Warner. On the blogs, the debate over the Stratosphere bash turns into an opportunity to attack Warner for his views on Iraq and Iran and his association with the DLC. "[A]ll I saw at the Stratosphere was an old-fashioned politician spending something like $70,000"--the number somehow keeps rising--"on a garish party to soften up a constituency," Micah Sifry writes on Personal Democracy Forum. "If I'm gonna settle for a DLC, I'm going to settle for Hillary," a Kos commenter spits. (Clinton, who chose not to attend, is no doubt enjoying this effortless measure of success.) Moulitsas tried to suppress the uprising with a front-page defense of Warner that only angered his troops even more.
Warner's reaction to the blogger backlash, which hadn't fully blossomed when I sat down with him in Las Vegas the afternoon after his now-controversial event, reveals a rather acute appreciation of the blogosphere. He understands that the liberal blogosphere has become an opinion-making force in Democratic politics. For example, the MoveOn.org poll shows that, the more a Democrat reads blogs, the less he or she likes Hillary Clinton, who has pointedly ignored the bloggers. Warner, a DLC centrist who took pains to appoint numerous Republicans in Virginia, seems aware of this phenomenon. "If somebody is going to make the judgment, 'I don't like Warner,'" he says, "I want him to make that judgment based not on something that they have read about me--I want them to look me in the eye, let me try to answer their questions, and, if they, at the end of the day, don't agree, that's fine. But I'm going to feel like I've given them my best shot."
Warner, who spent 20 years in the high-tech field, understands the blogosphere enough to speak about both its ideological divisions and the split between its opinion-making elite and its grassroots. He tells me that, with his Yearly Kos speech and interviews, he held his own with "some of the more ideological" bloggers, and he suggests that the ice sculpture uprising was more a phenomenon of the rank and file than the blog leadership. "Nobody would have said anything about it that are part of the big bloggers." With them, "there was a certain sense of, 'Gosh, this guy respects [our] values.'"
This is certainly more than Bill Richardson knows. When I catch up with him, the New Mexico governor is holding court in a room full of bloggers, endeavoring to understand the phenomenon. The governor seems to have been told that all bloggers are young, one of the mischaracterizations that most angers the bloggers--which is also contradicted by the crowd of middle-aged men before him. He talks about his service in the Clinton administration as taking place "way before many of you were born," and, when referencing the show "Dallas," suggests that few in the room would remember the 1980s drama. In frustration, a blogger finally retorts, "We're as old as you are!"
But, in other ways, Richardson's naïve style of courtship does charm the masses. Bloggers like the fact that he doesn't make a keynote speech but simply participates in a panel on an energy policy that the Kossacks have created from scratch. He even endorses the plan, with one amusing caveat, which only seems to make him more lovable: "One area ... that I would suggest you do a little more work is in bio-fuels, you know, ethanol."
His approach to the bloggers is direct, almost guileless. "What do you call your readers, customers?" he innocently asks, which garners some ain't-he-cute chuckles. He doesn't beat around the bush about why he's here: "I'm mainly here to acknowledge that you guys are big players in what voters will do." It succeeds. By Monday, Moulitsas gives Richardson a smack on the behind and an attaboy, magically adding him to his list of "top candidates to watch."
General Wesley Clark, who was already on the list, impresses with a similar sense of humility. He throws an expensive party at the Hard Rock Casino, but it is nothing like the epic Stratosphere bash (no sushi, no chocolate fountains, no Elvis impersonators), and so he is spared the attacks that Warner suffers. Moreover, the bloggers, many of whom are self-described geeks, love that Clark attends their science panel. But what is cool for the Kossacks is a little humbling for Clark. Clark's handler tells a columnist for Time.com, "Ten days ago, he had a street named after him in Kosovo; today he's on a science panel with a man named 'Darksyde' and a woman in a bonnet."
Sadly, Tom Vilsack, governor of Iowa and chair of the DLC, doesn't make the cut on Kos's top candidate list. Vilsack shares Richardson's lack of pretension, but he doesn't combine this man-of-the-people image with the de rigueur pandering or free meals. Instead, like Warner, he's burdened by DLC baggage, and he gets shoddy results. He sits on a poorly attended education panel with two know-it-all bloggers who dominate much of the session. Afterward, at his meeting with bloggers, 13 people show up, five of them national reporters. "Are you guys bloggers?" he asks of the other eight. During the panel's Q&A, one of the education panelists, Teacher Ken, interrupts the governor. "Let me respond to his question," Teacher Ken insists.
Vilsack gives lip service to the transformative power of the Internet on politics, noting the promise of a direct democracy project called the Progressive Caucus, but he also pointedly notes, "There is some maturing that has to take place" in the liberal blogosphere. "I think, in a more mature situation, you would see less focus on the personalities and more on the politics and the policies," he says. Pressed, he adds, "Well, you know, Daily Kos is banging away at the DLC. We don't need to do that. Because there is a set of values that I think people on Daily Kos have that define them as Democrats and a set of values that define me as the chair of the DLC. And you know what? I'm not the enemy. I'm a pretty decent guy, if I say so myself." Before wrapping up, Vilsack adds, "Al From takes some hits, and, clearly, Joe Lieberman, you know? We don't need to do that."
I have never met Vilsack before, and he strikes me as an extremely bright and knowledgeable governor. I almost feel bad for him. I want to--but don't--explain that, in the liberal blogosphere, he will now be the enemy.
Ryan Lizza is a senior editor at The New Republic, where this piece appeared June 26, 2006.