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Net-Savvy Democrats Aim to Pack a Digital Punch

A gathering of online liberals indicates they're evolving into a force within the party.

June 11, 2006|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Fans of the popular liberal website Daily Kos gathered here this weekend for an irreverent and impassioned conference that blended elements of a political convention, a revival meeting and what one attendee called a "summer camp reunion for people who have never met each other."

The four-day event, which drew 1,000 people, may have marked a milestone in the evolution of the online liberal community from scruffy insurgents to an institutionalized force within the Democratic Party.

A procession of prominent Democrats appeared at the convention, testifying to the importance that the party now places on cultivating the online activists and bloggers who often describe themselves as the "netroots."

The conference heard from, among others, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and four possible 2008 presidential candidates, including former Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner.

Yet the weekend offered plenty of evidence that the netroots will be difficult for Democrats to domesticate.

The bloggers and liberal activists who filled the panels and workshops condemned the Washington Democratic establishment almost as enthusiastically as they did the Republican Party, President Bush and the mainstream media.

In a keynote address Thursday night, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, who founded Daily Kos in 2002 after serving a stint in the Army, portrayed the rise of Internet activism as a challenge to both political parties, the media, and all the other established institutions in the political system.

"The media elite has failed us; the political elite, both parties, has failed us -- Republicans have failed us because they can't govern; Democrats have failed us because they can't get elected," Moulitsas said. "So now it's our turn."

The political impact of netroots activism remains a subject of debate.

Dean was the online community's favorite Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, and he won only a single primary. But since then, Democrats have grown more reliant on the Internet to raise money and get out their message.

Almost all Democrats agree that the Internet activists who are linked through institutions like Daily Kos and other liberal websites -- including MyDD and the giant advocacy group -- wield increasing influence in the party.

"I clearly think this may be one of the most important parts of the future of Democratic politics in this country," said Warner.

Reid, who has courted Internet activists since becoming Senate minority leader last year, was equally emphatic.

"I don't think we know today" where its impact will end up, Reid said. "But it's not going to be less, and it's going to be greater."

Reid demonstrated his belief in the group's significance by using a Saturday-night speech at the conference to announce that he would introduce legislation to sharpen congressional oversight of the intelligence information Bush is using to make decisions about Iran.

Reid said his legislation would require a new "national intelligence estimate" on Iran and establish procedures to check the accuracy of claims from senior officials about the country's nuclear weapons program.

Daily Kos has become a huge online gathering place for Democrats to debate issues, vent spleen, and promote causes and candidates. Moulitsas estimates the site receives at least 500,000 visits a day. Though many of those may be repeat visitors, that's enough to place him at the forefront of politically oriented websites.

The rise of sites like Daily Kos has stirred concerns among Democratic centrists who fear that the new activists are pressuring the party toward liberal positions that will impede its ability to build a national electoral majority.

Moulitsas and other speakers at the conference contested the idea that they were trying to impose a liberal orthodoxy on the party.

But the conference, like the discussions on the website, was marked by an unwavering call for Democrats to fight more forcefully against Bush, the conservative movement, and mainstream media institutions they believe favor the GOP.

The conference drew four Democrats considered possible contenders for the party's 2008 presidential nomination: Govs. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Tom Vilsack of Iowa, retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Warner.

Warner was by far the most visible of the four. He received a prime speaking slot to address the group Saturday afternoon, and he hosted a lavish party for conference-goers Friday night at the Stratosphere Hotel.

Still, 2008 did not seem the principal focus for most of those attending. Much more discussion, from the podium and among attendees, focused on two 2006 candidates: Jon Tester, who won the Democratic Senate nomination in Montana last week with help from online activists, and Ned Lamont, the Connecticut businessman who is challenging Sen. Joe Lieberman for the Democratic Senate nomination largely by focusing on Lieberman's support for the Iraq war.

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