“Bloggers have come out of the basement,” exclaimed one delegate on the first day of the Yearly Kos Convention. The attendees here in Chicago do not all fit the stereotype – they are not just a group of 23-year-old white males who blog from their mother’s basement. While there are very few people of color, the age and gender balance is pretty diverse – as the liberal blogosphere has grown to include any progressive who has Internet access and wants to help change the Democratic Party. At this Convention, I have so far attended a mock Iowa Caucus, a presentation from most of the Democratic Presidential candidates’ campaigns on how they’re working with the netroots, a panel of 3 bloggers who broke through the media cycle to defeat Republicans, and an informative – though frustrating – panel about holding our newly elected Democrats accountable. And with Howard Dean’s Welcome Address last night in front of 1,500 “netroots” activists who celebrated a new Democratic Congress, a presidential campaign that had come crashing down three years ago in the Iowa cornfields has matured into a powerful political force.

“What you have done for the past six years,” said Dean, “is to fight to restore the democracy that George Bush has undone. It takes a very long time to bring folks out of power who have been entrenched for so long. The Republicans are always talking about their moral values, but apparently democracy is not one of them. We can still win the battle for democracy in the world, but it will not happen by sending troops to Iraq. The Internet is the most empowering and democratizing invention since the printing press.”

In 2003, Howard Dean ran for President by saying “you have the power.” He came out of nowhere to lead the Democratic pack of presidential candidates because he effectively used the Internet for grass-roots organizing, only to see his campaign crash in Iowa with his infamous scream. Four years later, the Daily Kos community is bigger and stronger, and has gathered in Chicago for four days to learn from each other on how to build a movement that democratizes the political process.


Presidential campaigns give presentation on their Netroots effort

Few examples of Dean’s influence in the party were better than a presentation yesterday called “The Campaign Team: Blogging Their A Game,” where representatives from John Edwards, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd explained what each of their campaigns are doing to engage the netroots. “There’s no magic beans or special sauce,” said Joe Rospars, Obama’s Internet Director. “It’s really about providing the resources, and then getting out of the way and letting [supporters] establish their offline infrastructure.”

Four years ago, the idea of a presidential campaign actively encouraging its supporters to go out on their own and create their own way to spread their message was insane. Dean was the only candidate who did that – but this year, all the campaigns are replicating that model. They understand that the blogs are a new way to grow their grass-roots support, while empowering their supporters to use the Internet to connect with each other.

But part of why Dean’s campaign imploded in Iowa is because the netroots are a young movement of largely inexperienced people that did not understand the machinations of Iowa’s Presidential caucus – a system completely unlike a traditional statewide primary. And one of yesterday’s workshops tried to de-mystify this system for a relatively new movement of Democratic Party activists.

I attended a “Mock Iowa Caucus,” where an experienced field operator explained to bloggers how the process works. Rather than simply vote in a private polling booth, caucus attendees are expected to show up at 6:00 p.m. on a cold January night and spend up to three hours publicly debating, horse-trading and casting a vote for their presidential candidate of choice. Voters who would rather their neighbors not know who they want as the next Chief Executive don’t get the opportunity to participate.

Not surprisingly, only 10% of registered Democrats typically come to these things – where no absentee or proxy voting is allowed. Working-class people and single mothers are disproportionately under-represented, leaving a tiny minority of Iowans casting the decisions for millions of Americans of who will be the next President. The workshop then had us role-play a Mock Iowa Caucus, and there’s only one conclusion that I could come up with – the system is nuts.


Left to Right: MoveOn's Adam Green, S.R. Siddarth, Lane Hudson and Mike Stark

But bloggers are not just here to talk about Presidential politics. The Internet has revolutionized the way people get their news about politics, and bloggers have filled in the vacuum where our mainstream media has failed. By far the best panel I attended was from three bloggers whose actions changed the outcome of the 2006 elections: S.R. Siddarth was “macaca,” Lane Hudson broke the Mark Foley sex scandal, and Mike Stark got George Allen to deny that he had ever said the “n-word,” only to get physically assaulted by the Senator’s campaign staff.

When Hudson considered working on Tim Mahoney’s campaign for Congress, he first checked with his ex-colleagues on Capitol Hill to see if it would be a lost cause. They told him that it was – the Florida district was too Republican – but one former page said, “I just don’t know how Mark Foley has gotten away with it.” Pretty soon, Hudson tracked down several friends who had been sexually assaulted by the Congressman, and realized that Foley had hit on him at a bar when he was 18 years old.

Hudson tried to get a newspaper to publish some e-mails, but they were not interested. “The Washington media is afraid of rocking the boat,” said Hudson, “unless they get a silver bullet.” All he had were suggestive e-mails – but not the infamous IM messages. So he anonymously put them up on a blog, and ABC News finally picked it up. He was later outed by a conservative blogger who was upset about his anonymity, which then got him fired from his job at the Human Rights Campaign.

“The media think their job is to write the news,” said Mike Stark, “but they don’t want to make the news. They don’t want to get shut out of the corridors of power.” A liberal blogger, Stark confronted George Allen in ways that a “respectable” journalists would probably not have done. The Senator told him he had “never” used the “n-word,” which fueled a media firestorm that revealed more evidence of his racist past. “Macaca” had already come out, but without the blogs, the media was going to let the issue die.

2006 was a great year to be a Democrat, as the blogosphere helped end the Republicans’ 12-year reign in Congress. But how do progressive activists make sure they hold these Democrats accountable, and what’s the trade-off between calling them out when they cast a wrong vote – versus the risk of sounding shrill, reactive and self-defeating? Liberals often face a Hobson’s Choice between helping a Democrat who takes them for granted versus letting the “sell-out” lose to a Republican, creating a far worse result.

This was the topic of the first panel I went to yesterday – which could have been more productive if it wasn’t at 8:00 in the morning. “The institutional forces of people in Congress,” said blogger Jane Hamsher, “are very strong in the direction of the Blue Dog Democrats. Nobody wants to be the uncool kid. It’s a challenge for us to support and give money to these people – to then say that once you’re there, you can forget.”

The panel had a debate between Hamsher – who makes it a point to never “get friendly” with electeds, and that “it’s our job to be shrill and hold the line” – versus other panelists who argued that having access to politicians can be effective. “If your only tool is a hammer,” said Ari Melber of The Nation, “everything else looks like a nail.” Congressional staffers read the blogs, he said, and the netroots can be effective by keeping communication with these Democrats after they get elected.

It’s an issue that every progressive advocacy group – beyond just the netroots – always has to struggle and contend with. One audience member asked the panel what groups were the most effective at getting their agenda accomplished. Melber said that Working For Us has a lot of potential in bringing together the netroots and labor, with targeted Democratic primary challenges.

Former Capitol Hill staffer Lane Hudson cited CREW, a good-government group, because “they’re willing to go after Democrats.” Interest groups that try to be “bipartisan” and play both sides of the aisle, he added, are generally the least effective.

But the panel was frustrating because, with just an hour to discuss a central issue for progressive activists, not a lot of questions were answered. Ultimately, politicians respond to groups who have a base – and building a base among the progressive netroots is what it’s going to take to hold them accountable.

Tomorrow morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democratic leaders in Congress will address the Convention – where delegates will have the opportunity to ask tough questions. And tomorrow night will be the main event, where all the major Presidential candidates will debate, followed by more intimate “break-out” sessions afterwards.

Stay tuned for more coverage in Beyond Chron …

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