Bill Donohue is not known for respectful rhetoric. As president of the Catholic League, Donohue has complained that “Hollywood likes anal sex,” “Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity,” John Kerry is an “idiot” and Catholics “cooperate in evil” by voting for him. Yet it is Bill Donohue who led the first politically correct purge of the 2008 presidential campaign.

It all started when John Edwards hired two Internet staffers who write for the liberal blogs Pandagon and Shakespeare’s Sister. They had previously written entries mocking religion, using obscenities and slamming George W. Bush’s “Christofascist base.” Citing eight entries, Donohue assailed them as “anti-Catholic vulgar trash-talking bigots” and demanded they be fired, in a strident press release covered by the New York Times. Liberal bloggers fought back, pressing the campaign to defend its own team against politically motivated attacks from one hypocritical opponent. Edwards said he would keep the staffers, who expressed regret at causing offense; the blogosphere rejoiced and Donohue sulked. The skirmish could have ended there. But it did not, largely because the bloggers kept blogging and Donohue kept attacking.

The following weekend one of the Edwards staffers, Amanda Marcotte, wrote a personal blog entry referring to sexist depictions of Jesus’ birth. Donohue pounced, and after another media circus, both staffers voluntarily resigned. Marcotte says the entry was a “naïve mistake” that gave ammunition to Edwards’s detractors, but she was new to “bullet dodging in politics.”

So the flap is over, for now, and everyone is trying to make sense of what happened. There is a big risk of drawing the wrong conclusions.

The fight was not so much about religion or online obscenity as power. The netroots are the most aggressive, ascendant force in progressive politics, wielding more members, money and media impact than most liberal organizations. In the 2006 election cycle, MoveOn alone spent more than every other liberal political action committee except the prochoice EMILY’s List. According to the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, online donors gave Kerry $82 million in 2004, and Democrats expect much more in 2008. (Bush pulled only $14 million from the web.) And now top bloggers–like Jerome Armstrong, Markos Moulitsas and Glenn Greenwald–have hundreds of thousands of readers, successful books and a bully pulpit in print and broadcast media.

Republicans cannot stop the donations or pressure the media into ignoring liberal bloggers. Instead, the GOP has tried to drive a wedge between Democratic leaders and the netroots by attacking bloggers–and their readers–as an extreme vitriolic embarrassment. During the midterms, the Republican National Committee repeatedly attacked Democratic candidates for accepting netroots donations and working with bloggers, even distributing a six-page “research” brief maligning Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos. Conservative operatives recently floated smears of anti-Semitism at MoveOn [see Eric Alterman, “No Comment,” October 30, 2006], Republican donor Bob Perry sank $1 million into a new group devoted to battling MoveOn and Bill O’Reilly regularly denounces the “far left websites.” The strategy is to scare Democratic politicians away from tapping their motivated base.

Some Democrats are falling into the trap. Reviewing the Edwards affair, a former aide to Joe Lieberman advised the party to refuse bloggers access and “deny them jobs that confer party approval.” Somewhere, Bill Donohue was smiling. As it turned out, the netroots were not upset with Edwards, but plenty of Democrats were upset with the netroots.

Of course, the staffers’ blog entries were uncivil. Donohue used them precisely because they were offensive to disinterested people. But the same goes for Donohue’s past slurs, or Vice President Cheney dropping f-bombs on the Senate floor. Political debates are fierce, online and off.

“On our blogs, we all say things that might offend someone. Truth is, in life–in bars, in restaurants, in offices, on the phone–we all do that, only now there is…a permanent record,” wrote Jeff Jarvis, director of CUNY’s interactive journalism program, about the Edwards affair. When campaigns hire bloggers, he explained, they empower people who talk “without the veils of spin and PR and plastic discretion that politicians must learn.” Yet the very skills that make a good blogger–provoking people with passionate, authentic opinions–are considered a handicap on the campaign trail. John Edwards took a bold step by hiring and standing by two liberal feminist firebrands, but he was not prepared for their written words to compete with his campaign message.

The best political blogs thrive on a discourse built in opposition to the mainstream; people gather to commune in ways not permitted by media and political gatekeepers. The vigorous dialogue is probably closer to voters’ real conversations than politicians’ sanitized talking points or the breathless speculation that passes for news today, from premature presidential polls to Anna Nicole Smith’s death. In the end, campaigns prefer discipline over authenticity, and many bloggers do not. So Democrats should focus on tapping bloggers’ energy while managing their passion–and disregard the self-serving complaints of their opponents.