“This is truly democracy in action,” said Markos Moulitsas, his bright-eyed stare radiating energy at the bevy of camera-wielding reporters clustered around him in the enormous lobby of the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago.
It was the second annual Yearly Kos convention, and the founder of the Daily Kos had good reason to be feeling a power surge. After Hillary Clinton initially declined to appear at the conference, the chorus of boos from attending bloggers echoed throughout the Internet and even in that old media bastion, the print edition of The New York Times.
The Democratic frontrunner quickly scrambled to fix her schedulers’ “mistake” and get to Chicago, alongside her fellow candidates John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, Barack Obama, Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich.
Being courted by the Presidential candidates is great for the bloggers, Markos said, and “it’s empowering for the candidates, too. They can talk to us directly and they don’t have to worry about an editor” or anyone else getting in the way.
The knock on Yearly Kos from critics like John Stauber of the Center for Media and Democracy is that the bloggers have had their heads turned by their proximity to power.
“Probably the one overarching issue that unites the so-called netroots is the war in Iraq,” says Stauber. “And Hillary Clinton is on the record saying when she’s elected, she’ll keep troops in Iraq.” Yet most of the liberal bloggers will ultimately support Clinton if she’s the nominee, says Stauber.
For his part, Moulitsas sounded conciliatory toward Hillary: “The more people see of her, the more they realize she’s really not the scary creature painted by the right,” he said. “We have some substantive policy differences with her, especially on Iraq. But even if she doesn’t win the so-called blogosphere primary, if she’s the nominee she’s going to need the grassroots support.”
Waiting for Clinton to address a small group in a hastily arranged special forum, Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn also sounded mildly conciliatory toward the candidate, despite her disappointing Iraq stance. “It’s not like 2004, where there were people you loved and people you hated and people you’d leave the country if they were the nominee,” he said. As Pariser sees it, members of MoveOn are happy with all the Democratic options.
The session itself was notable for the lack of combativeness between the bloggers and Hillary. Incredibly, she didn’t have to field a single question on the war in Iraq.
She started out by disarming the group with a joke when her microphone went on the fritz about the “vast rightwing conspiracy.” And she addressed the tensions over her appearance with a wry smile: “People don’t always say nice things about me,” she said, getting an appreciative laugh. “It’s a burden I have to bear.” She went overboard thanking the netroots “for caring so much,” and for “standing up against the rightwing noise machine” and for being the “front line of the progressive movement.”
Flattery will get you everywhere.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she said, “but I actually read blogs. I find myself saying, ‘Oh come on,’ sometimes. But also, ‘That’s a really good point.’ And I try to work it into my speeches and legislation I’m working on.”
What could be more gratifying to a group of newly powerful policy wonks than that?
The first question Hillary took was on No Child Left Behind, from a teachers’ union rep, and her answer was such a longwinded treatise on education policy it turned the entire audience into squirming school children.
She fielded a couple of softballs on torture (she’s against it), warrantless wiretaps (ditto) and Alberto Gonzales (“It would be refreshing for the Attorney General to believe in the rule of law”).
Finally, Paul Hogan of the blog BeyondChron in San Francisco asked the only tough question of the hour. He thanked Hillary for saying publicly that she would be willing to repeal her husband’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. Then he asked if she would be wiling to repeal four other Clinton-era laws: The Defense of Marriage Act, NAFTA, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and welfare reform.
“The Defense of Marriage Act served a very important purpose,” she replied, explaining that she was “an architect of the strategy” that used the law to head off a marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“I believe marriage should be left to the states,” she dodged. But “I support civil unions with full equality” of benefits.
That’s why Part III of DOMA needs to be repealed, she said—“because it stands in the way” of domestic partner benefits.
On the Telecom Act she punted: “Ask Al Gore. He’s an expert. I’m not.”
NAFTA “did not realize the benefits it promised,” she said, delving into the problems that farmers in New York have with selling their products in Canada, though nothing about maquiladoras, job loss, or environmental disaster. “I fully support labor and environmental standards” in trade agreements, she said, and backed further study of the effects of trade agreements after they go into effect.
The greatest disappointment was her answer on welfare reform. “I think the positive consequences far outweigh the negative,” she said. She attacked the Bush Administration for reductions in education and medical benefits for the working poor who were kicked off welfare. But it was the Clinton law that dumped students from college and technical school and into low-wage jobs, without adequate child care and other support.
Finally, she made her closing pitch: “What’s really going to matter in this election is how much power we have from citizens across America. We cannot afford to lose. We cannot afford four to eight more years of”—the litany: the assault on the Constitution, tax cuts for the rich, “a war for the first time in history a president would not pay for.”
“I love a vigorous debate,” Hillary said (though she got none in that session). “That’s what the primaries are for and certainly what the blogosphere is for. . . . I appreciate your ideas. Help us reach out to people who don’t already agree with us.” And the clincher: “I am here to win, and to change America.”
The gesture was a success. She did seem to win over her audience. She seemed warm and funny. She didn’t get a hard time even on the tough questions. People wanted to like her.
Later, in a large debate with the other candidates, Hillary took more heat.
One of the moderators, Joan McCarter, set the tone when she thanked Hillary, rather pointedly, for coming.
Unlike the other debates, here the dark-horse candidates Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel had their points reinforced by the moderators. Kucinich said the Dems are wrong to claim they don’t have the votes to end the war, since they have the power of the purse. (Hillary responded that she did vote against the last military appropriation for Iraq, but that it will take a long time to withdraw the troops in an orderly fashion.)
Gravel, for his part, helpfully pointed out that the leading candidates are also the largest recipients of corporate money and therefore, “technically, the most corrupt.”
The biggest fireworks came when John Edwards challenged the other candidates to pledge not to take money from Washington lobbyists.
Pressed on that issue, Hillary responded slowly, carefully: “I think it’s a position that John certainly has taken. . . “ (laughter and boos). “I don’t think anyone who knows me seriously thinks I’ll be influenced by any lobbyist.” Louder boos. Asked if she’ll continue to take lobbyist money, Hillary said, “Yes, I will. Because a lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans—nurses, social workers.”
Hillary won a little buoying applause for this comeback, but she acknowledged that the tide was turning against her: “This is more real,” she said when the boos started. “Now I’m here.” That bought her a laugh.
The other candidates got loud cheers for refuting Hillary on lobbying. Dodd received a standing ovation when he called for full public financing of elections.
Obama said, “I disagree with the notion lobbyists don’t have disproportionate influence.” And Edwards—the most dynamic speaker and biggest applause-getter on the panel that day—asked the audience: “How many people in this room have a Washington lobbyist working for you?”
Here was where the hostility to Hillary came out. “Some had to get her!” the blogger sitting next to me, Larry Blandin, cackled with glee.
“She may not win over the bloggers, but if she can turn down the volume on the criticism a bit, that’s good for her,” Blandin said afterward.
That’s exactly what Hillary’s critics fear.
At a “coffee with the troops” organized by Iraq Vets Against the War and the Center for Media and Democracy, Garett Reppenhagen, a former sniper in the first infantry division in Iraq talked about how he started blogging: “The stuff I didn’t see on Fox News or CNN was what I wanted to express,” he said, praising the democratic potential of the web. “Anybody can get on YouTube. Anybody can write a blog. But I worry because more and more people start endorsing candidates, and we become like sports enthusiasts.”
“We’ve got to stick to the issues,” Reppenhagen said. “Right now the most important issue in America is the Iraq War.” He urged bloggers to talk to veterans and antiwar activists. “Look toward the groups that are really doing the grassroots work. . . . Let’s work together and let’s end this war.”
Aaron Hughes of the Illinois National Guard, another vet against the war, seconded that point:
“We elected candidates to Congress to end this war. They used us. They said, ‘We can’t cut funding because that will hurt the troops.’ I want to encourage the blogging community to step away from these candidates who have completely used us. . . . I ask that you start focusing on the people who can really end this war. Historically that’s the vets.”
Josh Lansdale, a firefighter who returned from Iraq with PTSD, contradicted Hillary on the ability of the troops to hastily withdraw:
“As soon as you tell them ‘prepare for redeployment,’ they can get out of Iraq. Kuwait can handle 250,000. I don’t see why we can’t get out.”
To the bloggers at the conference who oppose the war, Lansdale put it the most bluntly: “I would encourage you to get off your ass and do something about it.”