Trying to Beat Somebody with Nobody

Matt Bai’s excellent reporting on the netroots — a term he scrupulously avoids in a story that is meant to show the growing influence of the West Coast on the Democratic Party — contains the kernel of what I predict will be the movement’s ultimate frustration:

That these new progressives don’t have a West Coast politician to represent them in the Iowa caucuses is in keeping with the point of their entire movement. The progressive uprising inside the Democratic Party isn’t about trading in one group of politicians for another; it is about building a party in which politicians in general matter less. In their view, the 20th century may have been all about candidates dispersing their messages to the populace through the bullhorn of paid media ads, but the 21st century is about the populace sending its message to the politicians, thanks to the democratization of the online world. Who leads the charge at the top of the ticket hardly matters, as long as he (or she) says what the progressives want to hear.

“A party in which politicians in general matter less” is not the kind of party that can succeed in America.  We do not have a parliamentary system.  As of now, we pick our candidates, Democrat and Republican, through primaries.  There is no effective mechanism of party discipline, particularly on presidential candidates. 

If the movement Bai describes is so powerful, how is it that the Internet-based progressives’ favored candidate, John Edwards, is running a distant third to the candidate the progressives dislike most, Hillary Clinton?  (The Republicans are facing a similar quandary:  Their most popular candidate, Rudy Guiliani, only agrees with some of the GOP’s bedrock principles.  Liberal northeastern Republicanism was supposedly dying, but Guiliani might wind up as the most liberal Republican presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt.) 

Bai tries to demonstrate the progressive movement’s power this way:

That’s why all but one of the presidential candidates (Joe Biden) traveled to Chicago last month for the first-ever presidential debate held by a convention of progressive bloggers, which I helped moderate. It’s also why, when MoveOn.org effectively accused Gen. David H. Petraeus of betraying his country this month, it took several days for a single Democratic candidate to offer even a tepid rebuke. It’s telling that most of the Democratic candidates hired bloggers and Internet strategists even before assembling their policy teams.

He fails to mention that the MoveOn.org ad was ultimately rebuked by a 72-25 vote in the Senate, in which half the Democrats voting voted with the Republicans.  The ad clearly weakened the Democratic Party as a crucial moment.  It prompted Guiliani, considered the Web laggard of the 2008 campaign, to make a huge Internet splash with a devastating video attacking Clinton. 

Ironically, Elizabeth Edwards, wife of the progressives’ favorite broke ranks and criticized MoveOn.org, saying General Petraeus “doesn’t deserve General Betray-us,” the moniker MoveOn.org tagged him with.   The leftwing bloggers were furious.  Jane Hamsher of firedoglake.com lectured Mrs. Edwards:

You would think that she of all people should know about the asymmetrical intimidation problem that Paul Krugman talks about — the one where the media is afraid to go after Rudy Guiliani for claiming he’s a rescue worker, but they’ll try to demolish John Edwards over a haircut because they know that they’ll get hammered by the right wing noise machine for the former and pay no price for the latter.

But I guess not, because she decided instead to join with such leading moral barometers as Diaper Dave Vitter and John “McCarthy” McCain to attack MoveOn. So did John Kerry, whom one would expect to know better by this point in time. Granted, we really don’t expect much better from Joe Biden — somehow he continues to find the obvious quite elusive. So I guess we have to say it once again until everyone gets it — you never repeat right wing talking points to attack your own, ever. You never enter that echo chamber as a participant. Ever. You never give them a cudgel to beat the left with.

Just. Don’t. Do. It.

As Hamsher is discovering, real live candidates who want to win actual elections don’t behave the way activists want them to.  Partly, it’s about survival.  Partly, this is because some of them disagree with the activists.  In fact, most of them disagree with the activists some of the time. There are genuine moderate Democrats out there who either refuse to be bullied by the netroots or are waiting it out, believing the fever is a temporary condition.

Bai’s story is informative and well-reported, but he might be mistaking a fad for a trend.  We’ll see in 2008. I’m not certain the netroots aren’t a net minus for the Democrats.

Hamsher’s co-blogger, TeddySanFran, drew a different conclusion from Democratic reaction to the MoveOn.org ad.  He recognizes that the changes sought by progressive will not come quickly, despite the power of the Internet:

Did you realize, this week, that nothing’s getting fixed soon? Did you realize, this week, that things are seriously awry in The Village? Did you realize, this week, that allies inside the Beltway — those we had counted on in our fight to reclaim the levers of government — might not be such great allies after all?

I did.

This week, I re-learned the meaning of The Long Haul. This week, I learned that changes we want to implement won’t occur with just one more spasm of BlueAmerica success accompanied by the election of a Democratic President in 2008. We are not building a movement to succeed in fourteen short months in removing all the vestiges of authoritarianism and fascism from our shores. Not when students and preachers are marching, this week, in Louisiana, to free a young man from a justice system that’s simply racist and wrong.

We are building a movement that will need to last generations. We must build our movement strong and hardy, to pass down to Americans just born and not-even-born. We must broaden our movement, to ensure we have alliances across generations, across race, across workplaces, across gender and faith.

He’s right.  And eventually he’ll also realize that this movement must deal with other movements; some that agree with his, but only in part, with which he must whether to ally, and some that are poised to fight him tooth and nail.  Same as it ever was.  The ultimate outcomes of all this bumping and thumping of movements are expressed in government action (or inaction).  And it’s the people elected to run the government who decide those actions. 

Politics without politicians does not exist in this country.

2 thoughts on “Trying to Beat Somebody with Nobody

  1. This netroots thing is so new and we’re probably at the very front of the wave that its hard to tell how big a part it plays. It is odd that Edwards has so many net supporters ( including me) and yet it doesn’t translate into broader support among the Democratic base. Its strange that I came across this post as I had been thinking a lot about that very phenomenon this weekend. This as over the last 24 or so hours I saw dozens of images of The Big Dog flash across my TV screen. I’m just guessing from the safety of my desk chair, but I think Main Str. Democrats are pro Senator Clinton because they’re nostalgic for Bill. I thought Bill was the best Republican-lite president we ever had. By comparison to Dubya he looks in retrospect like one of our best presidents period. So they vote for Hillary, who will supposedly bring back the good old days. If Hillary makes it to the finish line, my bet is on Edwards as her VP choice since in many ways Edwards is like Al Gore.

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