The Kos Campaign

Illustration by Nick Higgins

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, founder and chief firebrand of the liberal blog Daily Kos, sounded weary in a post after the conclusion of his convention in Las Vegas last month. “I have a few pre-existing media obligations to finish off,” Kos wrote, “then I’m going dark for a while. At least that is the hope. The media glare is not something I crave.”

The temptation to wax incredulous here is nearly irresistible—given that Kos had just appeared on Meet the Press and sat down to chat with Maureen Dowd. But the truth is that his cravings are by now immaterial, since the media’s appetite for all things Kos is apparently insatiable. And so one day we read David Brooks opining in the Times about Kos’s hubris and caprice. The next we read about his feud with The New Republic over various allegations and betrayals. And still the next we read in Newsweek about “his plans to seize control of the Democratic Party.”

All along, Kos’s response to the attention lavished upon him has been admirably consistent: “[T]his thing really isn’t about me,” he’s written. The thing in question is, of course, the rise of the liberal blogosphere as a force in American politics. And, make no mistake, the story is indeed much bigger than one keyboard-tapping Berkeleyite. Up in Connecticut, Democratic senator Joe Lieberman’s career is hanging by a thread, owing to the blog-fueled primary challenge of businessman Ned Lamont. Down in Virginia, the blogosphere played a pivotal role in the nomination of Reagan-era Navy secretary James Webb to take on Republican senator George Allen. Meanwhile, among the crop of White House wannabes, hiring an A-list blogger is now de rigueur. Even Hillary Clinton—who, in an unusual display of devil-may-careness, blew off the Kos convention—recently hired former Kerry blogmeister Peter Daou.

The sudden Democratic obeisance to the Netroots fills many in the party’s centrist cadres with despair.

Let me say at the outset that, by and large, I regard the ascendancy of the liberal blogosphere—and its opposite number on the right—as a salutary development, both for politics and the media. That the Internet, which has transformed commerce and culture in ways too numerous to list, is in the early stages of transforming politics, too, strikes me as beyond debate. Yet it seems worth noting that, on the left, the rise of the blogosphere has as much to do with the weakness of the Democratic Party as with the intrinsic power of the Web; that Kos isn’t so much seizing power as stepping smartly into a vacuum.

Few liberal bloggers would dispute the notion that the national Democratic Party is a clueless, witless beast, profoundly disconnected from the views of its adherents. As Matt Stoller, an influential blogger at MyDD, wrote about Clinton’s taking on Daou and her decision to support Lamont if he defeats Lieberman, “Senators are completely bewildered by what’s going on ‘out there.’ … The move to upgrade their political machinery … means two things. One, it means that these politicians are now taking our concerns into account. Two, it means that when they make a political move that cuts against the progressive movement, they expressly know the political consequences.”

The sudden Democratic obeisance to the Netroots fills many in the party’s centrist cadres with despair bordering on panic—for they see the likes of Stoller and Moulitsas as “McGovernites with modems,” in the choice phrase of Marshall Wittman, a Republican apostate now ensconced at the Democratic Leadership Council. More than a few leading GOP lights agree, happily foreseeing the liberal bloggers’ leading the opposition down (okay, further down) the primrose path into lefty irrelevance. As Newt Gingrich put it bluntly in Newsweek, “I think the Republican Party has few allies more effective than the Daily Kos.”

In caricaturing Kos as a knee-jerk case, his enemies have some evidence to work with, provided helpfully by Kos himself. Consider, as Exhibit A, the New Republic dustup, in which Kos reacted with blind fury to the magazine’s touting of allegations that he plugged candidates with whom he or his friend and co-author Jerome Armstrong (now a consultant to former Virginia governor Mark Warner) had financial dealings. “If you still hold a subscription to that magazine, it really is time to call it quits,” he wrote. “The New Republic betrayed, once again, that it seeks to destroy the new people-powered movement for the sake of its Lieberman-worshipping neocon owners.”

But if, temperamentally, Kos comes across as a purity-enforcing commissar—self-appointed head of the Blogitburo—his substantive convictions make him rather harder to pigeonhole. “He’s a former soldier, pro–free trade, and anti–gun control,” notes Simon Rosenberg, president of the progressive New Democrat Network. “The resistance to him in Washington isn’t about issues—it’s generational. Markos represents a new generation taking control, asserting leadership, shaping the conversation. That’s why the old New Democrats are mad at the more partisan edge of the new New Democrats. They feel their power threatened.”

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.


The Kos Campaign