The YearlyKos netroots convention this past weekend offered a well-organized demonstration of how swiftly the Internet is changing American politics. The Chicago gathering drew the entire constellation of political, policy and media elites in the Democratic Party’s orbit, including representatives of virtually every national interest group, think tank and media outlet, along with visits from all the major presidential candidates. It was the party’s most significant gathering outside Washington since sweeping the midterm elections, and bloggers were eager to confront any timid Democrats still living with a pre-2006 worldview. In a keynote address to the 1,500 attendees, DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas argued that history had vindicated the netroots’ positions in debates with the establishment, from opposing the Iraq War to recruiting a new breed of antiwar populists like Jon Tester, Ned Lamont and Jim Webb.
Such confident pronouncements are not new in the blogosphere, but they have never been issued with quite so much clout before. YearlyKos 2006 was an exciting but ragtag affair. Activists buzzed in the dilapidated hallways of one of the cheaper hotels off the Las Vegas strip, meeting for the first time, trading Internet pseudonyms and gushing over the handful of big names who actually came to address their deeply misunderstood community. But this year’s event felt as smooth as its venue, a cavernous, gleaming white convention center adjoining an upscale Hyatt. The nervous energy that percolated in Vegas was gone, replaced with a plucky confidence.
When rumors spread that one of the presidential candidates might attend part of the convention but skip a breakout meeting with attendees, the potential snub was considered inconceivable. After all, activists reasoned, isn’t it a given that rebuffing the netroots is political suicide?
The candidate ultimately agreed. With much fanfare, Hillary Clinton and convention organizers shuffled schedules so she could attend the breakout meeting with her famous detractors, while still departing in time to hit the Hamptons for a $4,600-a-ticket fundraiser, an event the campaign kept off her official schedule and did not disclose to most bloggers or reporters during the convention.
The breakout sessions were supposed to cut through the typical campaign stump speeches and foster more authentic “citizen dialogues” with activists and bloggers. The idea was to move candidates beyond any sparring at the presidential leadership forum–(which I advised as part of a volunteer forum committee)–and offer them an intimate, unscripted exchange with attendees.
Yet Clinton strained to mold her meeting back into a controlled event. She was the only candidate to use her staff as a buffer, tapping her Internet director, Peter Daou, to pick questions and bringing three other senior aides onstage, though none of them spoke. She filibustered most of the time, taking more than eleven minutes to answer the first question alone–a simple query about fixing the unpopular No Child Left Behind Act. That softball came from an official with the National Education Association, who either didn’t know or didn’t care that this scarce time was carved out for bloggers and activists without insider access, not for interest-group sponsors.