Could this past weekend’s Yearly Kos convention -- the conclave of 900 activists sponsored by the Daily Kos web site -- turn out to be the most significant political gathering of 2006?
Here’s why it might be: The next Democratic presidential nominee will have to go with, or go over, or go around the left-populist-progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
The crowd who flocked to the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas included the most fervent of the bloggers, congressional candidates, and activists from that wing of the party.
In the old days — not long ago, in 1998 — reporters came to Las Vegas for the AFL-CIO convention to see union chieftain John Sweeney and allies such as House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. Now reporters come to interview Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the proprietor of Daily Kos web site and Matt Stoller of Mydd.com.
The presidential hopefuls, past and present, came too, -- Wes Clark mingled with Kos attendees at the opening night reception; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson addressed a panel discussion on energy policy Friday; and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack flew in for an education panel Saturday.
The stars come out
The three biggest stars of the show were:
-- Former Virginia governor Mark Warner who threw a lavish party for the Kos crew at the Stratosphere Hotel Friday night — ice sculptures, live music by Blues Brothers and Elvis impersonators, plenty of booze -- before addressing the convention on Saturday.
-- Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who was Saturday morning’s keynote address speaker.
-- But the person who got the loudest applause was former Ambassador Joe Wilson.
Wilson, who disputed Bush administration claims about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons ambitions, appeared at a panel discussion on the case involving the “outing” of his wife Valerie Plame, a former CIA employee.
The Plame episode is a burning topic of interest for Kos people. Five times as many people attended the Wilson event as attended another event in the same time slot, the discussion on energy featuring Richardson.
Bloggers in the mainstream
The presence of the presidential hopefuls “is a validation of something that we’ve been saying: that people who read blogs aren’t these far-leftist, extremist politically naïve young people,” Moulitsas told MSNBC.com in an interview.
“It’s actually a cross-section of the real Democratic Party. Maybe a little whiter, maybe with a bit more money than the typical party person. But generally speaking, we are the Democratic Party and all the efforts to marginalize us really are falling flat.”
No figure loomed larger in the demonology of those at Yearly Kos than Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, despised largely due to his support for the Iraq war.
A Lamont crusade
Lieberman faces a battle in the Aug. 8 primary against anti-Iraq war candidate Ned Lamont.
Everywhere one turned at Yearly Kos one saw Lamont lapel pins or heard excited talk about the chances of Lamont overpowering Lieberman. If that happens, it will dramatically illustrate the power of the bloggers.
At Thursday night’s opening bash, Moulitsas told the crowd that a new Quinnipiac Poll showed Lieberman’s lead over Lamont slipping to 55 percent to 40 percent.
“Lieberman’s going to lose this one,” declared Moulitsas, sparking whoops from the crowd.
A generation gap... of sorts
There were signs that some old-style mainstream politicians are a bit out of synch with the Kos culture.
Guest speaker Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., didn’t seem to fully appreciate the depth of the anti-Lieberman zeal. At a press conference after her speech Friday, Boxer said Lieberman’s opponents were solely focused on the Iraq war. Boxer said she was supporting Lieberman because he’d stood with her on opposing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other issues. Boxer would not say whether she’d support Lieberman if he loses the Democratic primary and runs as an independent.
Later I asked her whether her political action committee is going to donate to Lieberman’s campaign fund. “He hasn’t asked,” she said. She then asked with some annoyance why I was so interested in Lieberman. “Because everyone here is talking about him,” I replied.
Another instance of a traditional Democratic politicians being a bit out-of-synch with the Kos attendees was Richardson’s speech. He excluded Venezuela, run by leftist Hugo Chavez, an outspoken critic of President Bush, from a list of what he called U.S. “friends” (among whom he included Saudi Arabia and Nigeria).
Grass-roots activist Jed Rathband of Portland, Maine, who runs an oil-buying cooperative, noted that Richardson “didn’t call Chavez a friend, which I find interesting. My view on Chavez is: as long as he’s willing to poke the Bush administration in the eye, he’ll be my friend. Because my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Rathband said he’s trying to figure out how to buy oil from Venezuela for his customers.
Who will Kos support?
Which 2008 candidate will the Kos universe back? Will next year’s Kos convention -- which Vilsack said will be "hopefully in Des Moines" -- amount to the first primary of the 2008 race?
Warner is working hard and spending lot of money to woo the Kos universe. “Let’s keep dating!” Warner joked as he ended his speech Saturday.
But Rathband and others at Yearly Kos favor Al Gore. “My ‘08 candidate so far is Al Gore, absolutely Al,” Rathband said.
Another favorite of Kos-ites: Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold. Ubiquitous throughout the Kos weekend as he cultivated the bloggers was Trevor Miller, an operative for Feingold's political action committee. (Feingold himself was giving speeches to Democrats in Wisconsin and Minnesota.)
If dissatisfied with the Democratic 2008 race, left-populist-progressives have the option – discussed at Yearly Kos this weekend -- of abandoning the Democratic nominee for a third-party candidate.
Making the rounds at Yearly Kos was former Howard Dean campaign operative Paul Blank, now running the Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign for the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
“If the Democrats don’t take a stand on those populist issues, there’s a third-party brewing in this country like we’ve never seen,” Blank said.
The Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign has anti-Hillary Clinton implications, since she once served on the company’s board. It’s no accident that Clinton is no favorite of the blogosphere.
Stoller of Mydd.com said that if Democrats don’t regain control of Congress this November, or if they do and fail to push a left-populist-progressive agenda, then conditions will ripen for a third party. “If a change does not happen, that pressure has to go somewhere,” he said. He predicted an economic crisis triggered by hurricanes, energy prices, conflict with Iran, and middle-class Americans hit by higher rates on their adjustable-rate mortgages.
“When that happens, that frustration is going to go somewhere,” he said, “A third party would be a standard path in American history to represent that frustration.”
Moulitsas acknowledged that many Americas don’t read the bloggers. The grocery-store cashier in Pueblo, Colorado may not own a laptop, much less be blogging for four hours a day.
“The Netroots will always have its limits,” he said in an interview with MSNBC.com. “It’s a ‘pull’ medium; only the people who really like that material are going to go read it. We’re a pull medium; we need more liberal ‘push’ media; we need liberal talk radio, we need a Fox News alternative in cable news…. Blogs aren’t the be-all, end-all.”
Moulitsas and other bloggers don’t bear superficial resemblance to traditional bosses such as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Moulitsas told me, "I'm not a gatekeeper."
But the bloggers seem confident that the party Establishment must heed them.
The traditional news media and Washington-driven politics are kaput, Moulitsas argues.
He scoffed at last week’s killing of al Qaida chief Zarqawi. “You can’t say, ‘the killing of Zarqawi will not make us safer,’ you can’t say things like that because reality and Washington D.C. do not mix,” Moulitsas said.
He told the cheering opening night crowd, “The media elites have failed us, the political elites, in both parties, have failed us. It’s our turn. If they refuse to reform, if they refuse to be accountable, if they refuse to join the people-powered movement as it seeks to make this a better country and move America forward, then they’ll be relegated to the dustbin of history.”