Bloggers on both the left and right are ready to do battle—with their own party
For five weeks last summer, conservative bloggers thought they had their issue.
Seeing gas prices soaring above $4 a gallon, the bloggers and Republican congressmen hammered Democrats in posts on the Internet for not even allowing a debate on domestic oil drilling. When Democrats left Washington for summer recess on the first day of August, Republicans stayed behind in the darkened House chamber. With the C-SPAN cameras turned off, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter blogged and Rep. John Culberson Twittered about the protest to help stoke media coverage. The story made its way onto the Drudge Report, prompting Robert Bluey, Web guru for the Heritage Foundation, to head down to the Capitol. Using cell phone cameras, the congressmen, Bluey and other bloggers took photos and video of the GOP revolt on the House floor. Some of the grainy footage made it onto Fox News.
Because of all the publicity, made possible by the new technology, the House Republicans’ first press conference about their protest drew a throng of reporters and television cameras—the largest press gathering for the GOP since it was consigned to the minority in 2006, according to Politico.
And as if the bloggers weren’t riding high enough, House Minority Leader John Boehner began the press conference by noting that he had invited about 50 bloggers to the House floor to help get out the message. The Republicans “not only showed some backbone but also left a mark on Congress that won’t soon be forgotten,” Bluey wrote on his blog. The protest turned into a daily occurrence, with groups of about a half-dozen GOP lawmakers holding mock legislative sessions. The message was simple: The Republicans wouldn’t leave Washington until Democrats allowed a vote on drilling.
The conservative activists, on websites such as RedState, Townhall.com and The Corner, showed their support either by blogging on the issue or by asking readers to sign a petition urging more drilling.
This was a highwater mark for the conservative bloggers, suggesting their potential to shape policy debates. But it wasn’t long before their Achilles heel became equally evident. For all the noise they made during the summer, the bloggers didn’t follow through when Congress finally returned. On their first day back in session, Boehner and more than three dozen Republican members held a press conference on the west steps of the Capitol to again press for a drilling vote. While they spoke, almost as many liberal environmental activists, one in a polar bear costume, shouted over them.
“Shame on big oil!” they chanted. “Save our shores! People over profits!”
Bluey walked away from the press conference frustrated, knowing the newspaper clips would be about the protest. While plenty of environmentalists were there, he had been the only blogger to show up despite putting out the call for others to come.
“It seems like we have a very short attention span,” Bluey said to a reporter. “I didn’t see anyone else Twittering about this today.”
To Bluey and a growing number of bloggers, the real problem runs deeper: The conservative blogosphere just doesn’t feel the same outrage that energizes their counterparts on the left. And the reason they give is that bloggers lack the one unifying cause that could fire them up. Instead, like the conservative movement at large, they feel adrift.
Meanwhile, bloggers on the left know where they’re going. Emboldened by their rise within the party in power, the progressive netroots are focusing on ways to turn their activism into legislative gains. They don’t just want a majority; they want liberal legislation.
And they’re pursuing their goal with tenacity. Take the way Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald and Firedoglake’s Jane Hamsher are targeting Democratic House members who backed what they consider bad legislation. The two have started a new political action committee called Accountability Now that will back primary opponents of Democrats who voted for the $700 billion bailout for Wall Street and a bill protecting phone companies in domestic spying cases.
Since starting up in March, the group has raised more than $500,000. It has already run ads in The Washington Post criticizing House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the Democrat who negotiated the intelligence bill with the Republicans and the Bush administration.
The Accountability Now members are still trying to figure out the criteria they’ll use to target “bad Democrats.” Hamsher says they haven’t ruled out targeting centrist Democrats in Republican areas, such as Georgia Rep. Jim Marshall, a social conservative whose district was won by President Bush by 22 points in 2004.
One thing the bloggers don’t plan to do is speak with the Democratic leadership about their plans.
“That’s kind of why we’re scary,” Hamsher said. This is the new battleground for influencing and communicating the parties’ political agendas—the conservative and liberal blogospheres. For now, at least, it’s not an even fight.
Conservative bloggers know that they and their party are swimming upstream in 2008. They know that Democrats hold majorities in both chambers and that national polls have consistently shown Americans prefer Democratic control of Congress. The conservative activists are thus looking past this year, to a time when John McCain is no longer their party’s standard-bearer.
Their thinking goes like this: If Barack Obama wins and the Democrats keep control of Congress, then Republicans have no choice but to rethink things. Heck, having an all-Democratic government may even re-energize the grassroots—something McCain, never a darling of the right, has failed to do.
“The brand of the party will probably have to be built at the congressional level,” says Soren Dayton of the blog, The Next Right.
Dayton was a McCain staffer for a couple of weeks last spring, but left the campaign after he was caught Twittering about a YouTube video of Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. After leaving, he started The Next Right with Jon Henke, who worked on Fred Thompson’s failed presidential bid, and Patrick Ruffini, who helped run Rudy Giuliani’s campaign press shop. Together, they’ve mostly avoided punditry and have taken a longer-term view of where the party is headed. They’ve also been the first to talk about the need for some sort of “outrage” to unify the conservative movement.
Henke has called for a “purge” of pork-barrel spending House Republicans like Rep. Don Young, a champion of the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” While Henke sees himself as a libertarian, Dayton, Ruffini and other conservative online activists are Republicans through and through. One thing they all have in common is their belief in effecting change from the bottom up. They’ve been willing to praise their blogging counterparts on the left, who have been more successful at ginning up enthusiasm. When more than 7,000 Obama supporters criticized the Democratic nominee online and forced him to explain why he dropped his opposition to a Republican-backed intelligence bill, Ruffini called the grassroots pressure “revolutionary.”
To be sure, conservatives achieved a small victory with the drilling protest. Though bloggers’ interest in drilling seemed to fade once Congress returned, they ended up getting some of what they wanted: a bill that allowed oil exploration in areas that were 50 miles offshore.
The modest success of the drilling protest has led to other projects. Eric Odom, who started a site that served as a clearinghouse for pro-drilling news, dontgomovement.com, started another site with the hope of tapping into the energy galvanized by McCain’s choice of running mate, Sarah Palin. “It’s promoting the message that government is doing absolutely nothing,” he says. “You have this maverick like Palin who is doing something, who is not afraid of shaking up the establishment.”
Still, even as allies of the dontgo movement crowed about getting 21,000 people to sign a petition in August calling for more drilling, that same month the liberal group MoveOn sent a petition signed by 325,000 people, protesting a Bush administration policy on birth control—a topic that hadn’t been in the news otherwise.
A Republican strategist acknowledges that the bloggers on his side are still playing catch-up. Unlike MoveOn and liberal blogs, which have turbo-charged the fundraising for Obama and other Democratic candidates, many Republican bloggers act as pundits and have not generated the same kind of grassroots activism. “A lot of Republican-leaning blogs claim to be doing the same thing, but they are mostly ineffective on that front,” the strategist says.
When Henke was asked what his blog tries to do differently, he wrote, “I would like to think we can help define the way the online right perceives itself, our priorities and our strategies.”
As recently as 2005, a Republican-friendly blog trying to do that would be laughed at. The party then was coming off a successful election in which its president had won a second term and its majorities in both Congressional chambers had grown. But, obviously, times have changed. Even though The Next Right isn’t yet close to matching the power of MoveOn or Daily Kos, it may be in the right place at the right time. Republicans are acknowledging that the conservative movement has to change.
As for the liberal blogosphere, it’s been all about change for quite awhile. The most prominent progressive bloggers have gained stature largely because of their work on campaigns. And unlike conservative bloggers who have also worked as operatives, they have a slew of victories they can point to.
Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos, helped get Howard Dean elected as chairman of the Democratic Party in 2005 and Montana’s Jon Tester and Virginia’s Jim Webb elected to the Senate in 2006. Jerome Armstrong, a political consultant before he founded the blog MyDD.com, was a backer of Sherrod Brown’s successful Senate bid in 2006.
Glenn Greenwald is now pushing the Netroots to focus more on legislation. The 7,000 Obama supporters who took to the senator’s website to protest his reversal on the intelligence bill knew about the issue because of Greenwald’s writing at Salon.com. While Moulitsas and Armstrong are political animals, Greenwald is a constitutional lawyer.
His approach was on display when he took on Keith Olbermann. A darling of the Netroots, the MSNBC host occasionally contributes to Daily Kos. In one post that he expanded on during his show, Olbermann excoriated the Bush administration’s efforts to ram through the intelligence bill (known in shorthand as FISA, because it sought to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act).
Olbermann didn’t like the FISA update because it sought to shield telecom companies that had allowed the government to illegally wiretap American homes. On the show, Olbermann went as far as comparing the telecom companies’ lobbyists to “bureaucrats of the Third Reich ... re-writing the laws of Germany for their benefit.” The liberal blogosphere, Greenwald included, was unanimous in its opposition to the bill.
But when Obama, an opponent of immunity for the companies, reversed himself and backed FISA in June, Olbermann reversed himself, too. He argued that the political risk for Obama, who was entering the general election at the time, was too great.
Greenwald was disgusted by both men’s shifts, saying they erred by failing to remain true to their principles. “Those who think that Barack Obama should not be criticized no matter how wrong he is—or those who justify anything that he does no matter how craven and unjustifiable—are no different, and no better, than those who treated George Bush with similar uncritical reverence in 2003 and 2004,” he wrote.
In a follow-up interview, Greenwald said, “When I see someone like Olbermann who has been so vocal, and many times eloquently so, suddenly turn on a dime the minute Barack Obama does, that’s exactly the kind of cynical exploitation I think is dangerous.”
For Greenwald, the critical thing is to keep progressives from running against Republicans as less-vulnerable moderates, which is what Olbermann suggested Obama did by voting against his previous position on telecom immunity. It’s about leadership, Greenwald insists, which he defines as “people who are able to draw distinctions between Republicans and Democrats and then are willing to take a stand in defense of those positions, even if it’s not guaranteed ahead of time by polling data.”
Doug Thornell, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, appears unconcerned that the Netroots will push his party too far to the left. He contends that the existence of Democratic bloggers who oppose FISA and Blue Dog Democrats who support it shows that the party has a big tent. “If that’s a problem,” Thornell says, “it’s a nice problem to have.”
But the rise of online activists has already caused consternation among certain Democrats. “My general view is that the Democratic Party used to be the big tent party where everyone is allowed to express their views. Now it is being taken over by these bloggers and purists who can only see one way of thinking,” former Rep. Al Wynn of Maryland told The Washington Times back in 2006. “We can think for ourselves and not for somebody else’s idea of what a liberal is supposed to be.”
At the time, Wynn, who backed telecom immunity and had received thousands in contributions from phone companies, faced a primary challenge from Donna Edwards, a civil rights lawyer who opposed telecom immunity. Despite raising more than twice the amount of money as Edwards, Wynn won the primary by just three points in 2006.
Edwards came back in 2008, and, with the backing of bloggers, raised $1.3 million—which was $1 million more than her total in the previous election. More than three quarters of her money came from individual contributions, urged on by liberal bloggers following FISA. In February, she trounced Wynn, 59 percent to 37 percent.
The day after the election, MoveOn sent an e-mail to members with the headline: “Donna Edwards beats Al Wynn: Who’s next?”
The liberal bloggers take pride in knowing that key Democrats are listening to them. For instance, bloggers last year on Daily Kos, MyDD, Firedoglake and elsewhere pressed Chris Dodd, the senator from Connecticut, to block the FISA bill, knowing that he had made protecting the Constitution a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Dodd heeded the call and threatened to filibuster the bill, effectively stalling its progress. In the 24 hours after Dodd made his threat, bloggers responded by getting readers to donate $150,000 to his campaign.
The Netroots, knowing that more legislative fights are coming, are readying pressure for lawmakers who waver on their principles. Greenwald and others think that if they put pressure on Democrats from the left, they’ll think twice about voting against them. To date, they believe, the Democratic majorities have yet to yield much for the Netroots, who had high hopes for an end to the war in Iraq and more money for education and health care after 2006. “There’s a reason Congress’s [approval] rating is at 9 percent now,” Jane Hamsher says, adding that the Netroots “expect more bang for our buck.”
Even the currently campaign-heavy Daily Kos is getting in on the legislative action. David Waldman, who blogs as Kagro X, plans to start an offshoot site called Congress Matters.
With Moulitsas’s blessing, Waldman hopes to take the energy that Kossacks, as Kos readers are called, have put into Obama’s bid and other Democrats’ campaigns and funnel it toward oversight of Congress. In Waldman, the site has someone who knows what he’s doing; he served as a legislative aide in the House for four years in the office of Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat now in the Senate.
Waldman, who gets his blogging handle from an old video game name he used, still talks and writes in Senate and House jargon; some of his most effective and popular posts have been about motions to recommit, a tactic in the House used recently by Republicans to stall legislation. That insider knowledge is what the Netroots could use, Waldman figures.
To hear Greenwald tell it, though, the Democrats’ first and greatest need is to stop looking at polls and cowering in fear of Republicans. “I have a bit of concern that the emphasis that the left has had with the Constitution and balances of power will disappear,” he says. His answer: Once they get to the top, Obama and other Democrats have to be held to account. You can probably guess who will apply the pressure.
Walter Alarkon is a staff writer for The Hill.