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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.

Then Clinton only took five more questions. Iraq never came up. Instead, the issues were the Military Commissions Act, domestic spying, gays in the military, mass transit and, in the most revealing exchange, how a second Clinton Administration might break with the centrist legacy of the first. Paul Hogarth, a 29-year-old California blogger for BeyondChron, asked if Hillary would repeal NAFTA, welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) or the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Clinton strongly defended DOMA–saying only that the provision hindering federal benefits should be axed. She conceded that NAFTA did not achieve all its aims but offered only “labor and environmental standards” and more “ongoing monitoring” of the effect on working people. She depicted welfare reform as a net gain and then ducked the Telecommunications Act altogether, telling attendees she was no expert and “you’ll have to ask Al Gore” about it, since he oversaw the issue for the White House. Trying to pin one of her husband’s controversial policies on Al Gore–the antiwar, green, tech-savvy hero of the blogosphere–at a netroots convention is probably the single most tone-deaf thing Clinton has done this year, but few attendees appeared to dwell on it.

Hogarth was not impressed, saying her answers deserved a D grade. “People are really nostalgic about the Clinton years based upon who is President now,” he said, yet “Bill Clinton got re-elected by completely betraying Democrats on everything they stand for.”

Most attendees were much more supportive. Clinton’s breakout session drew repeated applause and no boos. (She was booed lightly during the larger candidate forum.) All the candidates were warmly received during their sessions and the forum, where John Edwards drew the most applause, and while many of the questions offered during both events were thoughtful and heartfelt, few were tougher than queries from traditional reporters. “What surprised me is how passive the audience is when in the presence of these national leaders,” said TechPresident.com co-founder (and Nation contributor) Micah Sifry after a candidate breakout session.

One downside to the convention’s sudden growth this year was a new splintering. As Daily Kos diarist dday blogged over the weekend, an “inevitable cliquishness” took hold as activists broke into groups and “fragment[ed] the community.” Several events furthered the stratification. While last year people debated whether former Virginia Governor Mark Warner was right to woo attendees with a fancy party, at least it was transparent and open, since everyone could attend, decline or complain as they pleased. Many of this year’s hot tickets were invite-only, from a Media Matters “VIP reception” to Time magazine’s cocktail party to the most exclusive clutch of all–a “secret” meeting between Barack Obama and an elite, overwhelmingly male group of bloggers. One of the best parties that actually welcomed the entire convention was the Teamsters barbeque, which began with Jim Hoffa and Moulitsas riding together along the edge of Lake Michigan on a giant tractor-trailer.

Amid all this hoopla and political intrigue, it is easy to lose sight of the convention’s DNA. A self-organized band of activists and volunteers built one of the most important gatherings in modern politics from scratch in just two years–an achievement most organizations, think tanks and even well-funded corporate PACs could not match. That success is sparking understandable growing pains and fundamental questions about how to maintain the gathering’s egalitarian, open and participatory ethic. The Democratic establishment knows it must now listen to its netrooots base. The trick is ensuring that the full range of netroots activists are empowered to speak up for themselves.