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The Hope of the Web

The birth of the new movement led by Daily Kos came in 2003 with the unexpected emergence of Howard Dean as a presidential candidate. Since that campaign provided both the technological and spiritual inspiration of much that came later, it’s important to reconsider what Dean’s venture was (and was not) about. It rose in the shadows of the Bush ascendancy in the years following September 11, when very few people—certainly not presidential candidates with an eye to getting elected—were willing to challenge the White House directly. In that situation, Howard Dean’s forthrightness, especially his willingness to strongly oppose the war in Iraq, united many people worried that Bush had succeeded in stifling dissent.

But it’s also important to realize that Dean wasn’t particularly liberal. In his years as governor of Vermont he’d earned a reputation as a moderate in social and fiscal policy, addressing health care for children, for instance, but frustrating local activists by refusing to take up a more comprehensive medical plan. Bernie Sanders, the former mayor of Burlington who is now the only independent member of the House of Representatives, is a Vermont liberal. Dean is not. What mattered in Dean’s case was his open manner and his willingness to risk making clear statements about Iraq. In their book, Armstrong and Moulitsas—who are widely known on the Internet by their shorthand names Jerome and Kos—retell the story of the campaign’s early days, especially Dean’s speech to the California Democratic Party in March 2003. He followed the well-known candidates, who trimmed and tacked:

The crowd, a few thousand of the party diehards, was getting a close look at the men seeking the Democratic nod, and not liking what it saw.

And then Howard Dean walked on stage.

What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting the President’s unilateral intervention in Iraq?”

That brought loud cheers from the delegates.

What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting tax cuts which have bankrupted this country and given us the largest deficit in the history of the United States?”

Soon the crowd was chanting “Dean, Dean,” and that was before he unleashed his signature line: “I want my country back! We want our country back! I’m tired of being divided! I don’t want to listen to the fundamentalist preachers anymore! I want America to look like America, where we are all included….We have a dream. We can only reach the dream if we are all together—black and white, gay and straight, man and woman. America! The Democratic Party!”

The crowd, they write, “was on its feet, the convention hall shaking from audience pandemonium, the speech serving as a liberation of sorts.” Party activists “weren’t alone in the fight. Not anymore. They had a champion and his name was Howard Dean. The call to arms by Dean was ideologically agnostic, purely partisan.” And in that partisanship, it launched a movement that outlasted his ill-fated campaign and is still gathering strength.

What wasn’t clear at the time was that the Dean campaign also launched the Internet era in American politics. Previously, even if people became excited about a candidate in the primaries, there wasn’t all that much they could do to help. They might find a mailing address and send a check, or wait for the primary campaign to reach their state so they could take part in the campaign and then vote. But Dean’s young campaign staff opened a new channel through their Web site Deanforamerica.com, which featured the then still fresh idea of a blog. Every few hours—sometimes every few minutes—staffers would file news from the campaign on its Web site: chatty and informal bulletins about how many people were gathering for a rally, short profiles of particular volunteers, digital pictures of clever signs supporters hung from highway overpasses or stuck in their front yards.

The staff used Meetup.com, an otherwise apolitical Web site designed to bring together groups of people with similar interests, to enable supporters in particular parts of the country to easily organize monthly meetings in church basements and high school gyms, where volunteers could, for example, write individual letters to every Democrat in Iowa and New Hampshire urging a vote for Dean. Most important of all, they pioneered on-line money-raising. Every time something unusual happened (when some pundit would disparage the “kiddie corps” running the Dean show, say) the Web site staffers would “put up a bat” on the home page—a picture of a baseball bat, empty like a United Way thermometer in front of a town hall, which they would fill with red as the contributions would come in from people taking a few minutes to read the blog from their home or office computers. The supporters of the Dean campaign easily raised more money than their opponents in the early primaries and caucuses, and for the first time in recent political history, they did it largely with $20 and $50 and $75 contributions from across a large base of his ardent fans. Suddenly ten thousand people with passion and $100 apiece could match a big PAC or a patio full of Hollywood stars.

The reason the Dean campaign collapsed in Iowa, the authors argue persuasively, was largely that the new kind of campaign he was assembling threatened so many powerful people, from rich donors used to the kingmaking power their money gave them to “media advisers” unhappy at seeing their conventional wisdom ignored. Jerome and Kos tell the story of the series of TV ads that helped turn the polls against Dean; they were sponsored by a mysterious new group called Americans for Jobs and Healthcare and they showed, among other things, the face of Osama bin Laden in order to argue that “Howard Dean just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy.” A few months later when mandatory financial reports finally emerged, it turned out that the ads had been financed by supporters of John Kerry and Richard Gephardt and organized by the “disgraced, corrupt former New Jersey senator Robert Torricelli.” All in all, the backers of the ad had given more than $8.7 million to the Democratic Party in the previous few years. Dean made plenty of political gaffes on his own but he had been eliminated by powerful Democrats.

What is striking, however, is that most of his supporters didn’t desert the Democratic Party after his defeat. Instead, when the Dean campaign Web site went dark a great many shifted over to Daily Kos and they started to volunteer for John Kerry—not with the same affection they’d felt for Dean, but with much dedication. I spent the week before the general election in Columbus, Ohio, and virtually everyone I talked to who was out knocking on doors for Kerry had begun the year supporting either Dean or the other Internet favorite, General Wesley Clark.

And many of them didn’t drop out when Kerry lost the election, either. Instead, they concentrated on Dean’s race for chairman of the Democratic Party, a post that had in recent years been mainly of interest to political insiders. The incumbent, Terry McAuliffe, retired after his failure in the 2004 elections, and the general consensus was that the 447 voting members of the relevant party committees would turn to yet another veteran of the inbred and centrist world of Democratic Party technicians, bland pols, and full-time fund-raisers. Jerome, on his widely followed MyDD blog (where Kos had begun his blogging career by posting comments), started handicapping the race; other bloggers began to study the records of Dean’s rivals. One of them, Leo Hindery, for instance, was a prototypical fat cat. According to Crashing the Gate, he turned his Gulfstream around in midair while en route to a Democratic caucus when he learned that the blogs had revealed he was a chief backer of the ad linking Dean and Osama. When Dean eventually won, he said, “This party’s strength does not come from consultants down. It comes from the grassroots up.” In essence, this new force had lost the primary, but made it clear that it could continue to fight. “Dean was the first to break through and get inside the heretofore closed world of the party,” Kos and Jerome write. “He won’t be the last.”

Crashing the Gate concentrates on the tactics for a new Democratic strategy. These include, first, shifting power away from single-issue advocacy groups, like the abortion rights movement, environmentalists, and labor unions, and toward a revived Democratic Party itself. Such groups have long been the main constituency of many Washington Democrats, sources for both money and volunteers, and as a result they have been able to impose on the party their own orthodox approaches to important issues. It is true that such groups as NARAL—the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League—and the Sierra Club join pro-Democratic electoral coalitions such as ACT (America Coming Together) and MoveOn.org. But the trouble, as the authors point out, is that giving prominence to such groups seems to confirm Republican stereotypes (“treehuggers”). Worse, the activists concerned with single issues cannot reliably deliver electoral victories. Often their efforts are simply counterproductive. In May 2005, for instance, NARAL endorsed Rhode Island Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee for reelection this fall because he said he was pro-choice. On the other hand, as Jerome and Kos point out, he voted to make the militantly anti-choice Bill Frist Senate majority leader, and he sided with the Bush administration on the crucial vote on a filibuster against Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito.

By contrast, Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader in the Senate, says he is personally against abortion—but he has still resisted many of the federal judges opposed to abortion the Bush administration has proposed during his tenure. (Reid will be the keynote speaker when the Kos community, who sometimes call themselves “Kossacks,” holds their first convention in which they will physically meet this June in Las Vegas.) Kos and Jerome are also eager to see Democrats break with some of their past positions in order to reach new voters—Dean’s stand against gun control as governor of a rural state appealed to them, for instance, and they’ve found a politician they can admire in Brian Schweitzer, Democratic governor of the red state of Montana, who favors a number of liberal reforms but also backed the program of the National Rifle Association.

Their point is that the Republicans have prospered by ignoring ideological consistency. They’ve held together a disparate coalition that ranges from right-wing evangelists and other promoters of conservative moral values to big businesses dependent on federal subsidies and tax cuts, each of whom realize they will get more of what they want by cooperating in joint efforts. A Democratic majority in the House and Senate would protect abortion rights even if individual senators were wobbly on the issue. “No one’s narrow agenda is served by being in the minority,” they write. “A governing majority would mean far more for everyone’s pet causes. Let the party be the party, with the movement outside looking in.” They represent, to use Dean’s favorite applause line, “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

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