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The Kos Campaign

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Rosenberg goes on to point out, as many observers do, that Kos and his allies see themselves not as ideologues but as pragmatists, aspiring players. And, indeed, time and again, Kos has declared that his main interest is in regaining power, by whatever means necessary. In his keynote at his Las Vegas convocation, he declared, “Republicans have failed us because they can’t govern; Democrats have failed us because they can’t get elected.” His mantra on other occasions has been “I’m just all about winning.”

In the relentless and hardheaded pursuit of that objective, Kos and three other prominent bloggers—Stoller, his colleague Chris Bowers of MyDD, and “DavidNYC” of Swing State Project—have compiled a list of sixteen “Netroots candidates” and posted their names at ActBlue, a Website that lets visitors make donations to campaigns. So far the totals raised through the site have been modest. But Kos suggests that the process can serve a kind of bootstrapping function. “[Once] a candidate can show broad support, he or she can do two things: (1) Prove to the big-money donors, labor unions, and pacs that the candidacy is viable and worthy of higher-level support and (2) build a list for future activism and fund-raising.”

On its face, this sort of strategizing is impressive enough—yet what makes it even more so is the contrast with the utter disarray on display over money in the Democratic Party’s upper echelons. A little more than a month ago, a meeting between party chair Howard Dean and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rahm Emanuel broke out into a yelling match. The dispute centered on Dean’s insistence on a “50-state strategy,” with resources being invested broadly and with an eye beyond 2006, and Emanuel’s belief that cash should be funneled predominantly into races where Democrats stand the best chance of making gains. (Democrats must pick up fifteen seats in the House and six in the Senate to retake control of Congress.) The two men haven’t spoken since.

As confused and conflicted as the Democrats appear on matters pecuniary, they are even worse when it comes to formulating a coherent governing agenda. For more than a year, there was talk on Capitol Hill of the need to devise some Democratic version of Gingrich’s famous Contract With America. Then, last month, the document emerged at last. On the plus side, the party had abandoned its previous slogan: the syntactically challenged “Together, America Can Do Better.” On the minus side, the replacement was an object lesson in vacuity—“New Direction for America”—and the contents it framed turned out to be a shopworn list of vaguely stated Democratic goals—lowering the cost of college, lowering gas prices, restoring fiscal responsibility, blah blah blah—without any coherent vision, never mind firm programmatic commitments, to animate or back them up.

For Kos and his cohorts, naturally and rightly, the most interesting thing about the Democrats’ putative agenda is what it does not contain: a policy on Iraq. The standard explanation here is that the party is too divided on the issue for it to embrace a unifying solution. But as Stoller argued at MyDD, to describe the Democrats as divided on the war is a misnomer. Observing that in recent polls 75 percent of Democrats say they favor withdrawing some or all of the troops now stationed in Iraq, he wrote, “When the Democratic ‘leadership’ holds positions in contrast to the vast majority of self-identified Democrats, then what we have is not a division. That is, instead, a dislocation.”

More than any other single factor, that dislocation has created the context in which Kos and his allies have found their traction. (Certainly it has fueled the ire that the liberal bloggers are now directing at Lieberman, whose support of the war rivals George Bush’s.) Though they often pay a degree of lip service to a panoply of left-bent concerns, they are essentially single- (or, being generous, double-) issue activists: more than happy to wage the 2006 campaign as a referendum on the Iraq war—and on a generalized indictment of the Bush administration’s incompetence and mendacity. Their populist impulses are real enough, but they are wedded to no overarching set of policies, let alone an encompassing philosophy. They no more have a fully elaborated or articulated vision of what a 21st-century Democratic Party should stand for than do the hated members of the Washington hierarchy.

And, hey, who knows, in 2006 or 2008, a grand vision might not be necessary to restore the Democrats to power. If so, Kos may find himself blanching in the media spotlight for many years to come. But if the Democrats are thwarted (again) in the coming two national elections—and especially if Kos’s chosen Netroots candidates fare poorly at the polls—he may wind up looking not so different from the class he so scorns: the narrow-bore professional tacticians who have counseled the Democrats during their free fall.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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