"I wish things were as bad for progressives as progressives think they are."
That was one epiphany for Phillip Klein, a conservative writer for the American Spectator, after palling around with liberal bloggers for several days at the fifth annual Netroots Nation in Las Vegas this weekend. Klein was marveling at the melancholy suffusing the conference, given the Obama administration’s undeniable legislative accomplishments to date. The healthcare bill "alone," he said, "is more than any liberal has passed since LBJ."
Now Klein could just be, in web parlance, concern-trolling for his political opponents. But his view coincides neatly with several of the political heavyweights who spoke at keynote sessions of the conference, when most of the 2,100 attendees gathered in a cavernous Vegas ballroom flanked by dark curtains studded with glow-in-the-dark stars. The flashy digs hosted Democratic Congressional leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and liberal heavyweights like Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, Van Jones, Richard Trumka, Majora Carter and Markos Moulitsas, who founded the blog that first spawned the conference.
The politicians hit the standard midterm talking points, an amalgam of Bush’s 2004 governing message ("It’s hard") and a Beatles ballad ("It’s getting better all the time"). "The country would be a lot worse off if we weren’t around," Harry Reid wistfully told the crowd on Saturday. No surprise there—politicians always have high job approval among themselves.
Many of the top liberal advocates, however, also sounded downright enthusiastic about the Democrats’ incumbent incrementalism.
Van Jones, a green jobs activist who was Breitbarted out of his administration job last year, actually urged liberals to empathize with Obama’s team. "This is harder than it looks," he said. "Having spent six months in the White House, it’s a totally different experience when you’re sitting there and the missiles are coming over the horizon at you." (Jones gave a formal speech and then did a question-and-answer session with me on Friday morning.)
Over in the breakout sessions, where attendees tested their wonk tolerance with more than thirty policy panels available each day, there was a wider range of views.
Sessions on "Right-Wing Populism and the Tea Parties," "Fighting the Right Wing with Racial Justice" and "Fighting the Right 2010" prioritized political combat. And a bevy of panels were premised on the administration’s pale progressivism, including discussions of "Racial Profiling in the Obama Era," "Crimmigration Under Obama: Pushing Back," and a "Liberal Perspective" on Elena Kagan’s nomination.
What would President Obama think of it all?
He did not attend in person, as he did during the convention’s primary campaign edition, but took more of a chatroulette approach, uploading a video anticipating the community’s skepticism.
"Change hasn’t come fast enough for too many Americans, I know that," Obama said, "and I know it hasn’t come fast enough for many of you, who fought so hard during the election."
Then the president passed the mic to one of the netroots’ most beloved figures, even though she’s never attended Netroots Nation, and played a clip of Rachel Maddow. The popular MSNBC anchor recently declared that Obama had achieved more in office than any president since prohibition.
Obama also cited two campaign pledges that are late or broken, depending on how you keep score, saying he was still committed to closing Guantánamo and repealing "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" (DADT). A few hours later, one of the weekend’s most dramatic, unscripted moments unfolded in connection with the military’s ongoing exclusion of gay Americans.
Lt. Dan Choi was one of the first and most prominent soldiers discharged for sexual orientation during the Obama administration, and he has become a vocal activist for repealing DADT. Choi asked Joan McCarter, a DailyKos blogger, to present his West Point graduation ring to Harry Reid during a keynote session. (Reid’s hometown session was carried live by only one cable channel: Fox News.) Reid had previously pledged to Choi that he would end DADT by 2009. First Reid said he couldn’t accept the ring, just as he had declined one of his son’s championship rings. Then members of the audience yelled out that Reid could take it and return it once DADT was signed. Reid agreed on the spot; Choi jumped onto the stage and the two embraced to a thundering standing ovation.
"The ring means a promise," Choi told The Nation after the exchange. "And that ring was my promise to serve, and that promise that Harry gave to me that he would end DADT by 2009 was broken. So now I had to renew that promise," he explained, "and it’s a symbol of the promise to hold our friends accountable."
Choi added that Reid was the "most powerful" senator, so for him to claim he cannot do anymore for reform "betrays what it means to be a leader of anything."