Presidential Candidates Turn to Virtual Grassroots to Make Case

Monday , March 05, 2007

By Kelley Beaucar Vlahos




If being president is like living in an alternate reality, running for the job may be best accomplished in the virtual one.

More than ever, presidential candidates are attempting to harness the power of the ever-growing blogosphere, and they're finding that independent writers are increasingly able to influence their success.

Dave Johnson, co-founder of the Web log, and proud member of the liberal or progressive “netroots,” a coalition of like-minded activists on the Web, said the role blogs played in last fall's midterm election — in which the congressional majority turned over to the Democrats — is testimonial to the 'roots' growing influence.

“We have the ability to apply pressure,” Johnson said. “We are a grassroots voice and we are able to raise people's enthusiasm and understand what is going on. We punish and we reward. I’m not saying it’s me. I’m saying it’s the public — a fairly significant percent of the public.”

Conservative bloggers acknowledge that liberal blogs have had more of an effect on Democratic candidates and races, particularly in the November midterm election, but say reports that the netroots can actually squeeze politicians to conform to a specific agenda are at best “debatable.”

“The left wing bloggers are suffering from a Napoleon complex,” said Bryan Preston, producer of, suggesting that extreme bravado by the left is covering up a personal sense of inadequacy.

Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee who runs conservative, said right-wing blogs haven’t fully utilized the Web to raise money or stump for primary challengers and vulnerable candidates nor have they been effective in getting the attention of congressional Republicans.

But that only hurts the GOP, Reynolds said. The decision to ignore repeated warnings in the blogosphere about political disasters in 2006 — like the Dubai Ports Deal and President Bush's ill-fated nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court — cost Republicans.

“The Republicans missed a chance to avoid catastrophe because they didn’t pay attention to the blogs. They should be paying more attention,” Reynolds said. “The Democrats are organized as political machines in a way that Republicans are not."

Liberal bloggers like Johnson and Eric Boehlert, a writer for who often blogs on, say attention to the netroots helped catapult to victory a number of Democratic underdogs in 2006, including Jon Tester, who beat out three-term Sen. Conrad Burns in Montana, and Jerry McNerney, who ousted seven-term Rep. Richard Pombo in California.

They even draw confidence from the unexpected Democratic primary win of Ned Lamont over Sen. Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut, even though Lieberman went on to retain his seat running as an independent in the general election.

“It was that campaign that really showed Democrats that it was okay to publicly oppose the war, and I think the netroots are far ahead of in terms of political organization,” said Boehlert.

"We started putting together a machine, a small machine that works and it's able to raise money, and it’s able to raise energy and volunteers to get people out on the streets to campaign,” said Johnson.

Masters of the liberal netroots are now hoping to extend that energy to making sure Democrats are keeping their promises in Congress. The effort now is to see how far along the political spectrum they can push lawmakers to go.

For example, an article in The Washington Post last month suggested that liberal bloggers want to punish Rep. Ellen Tauscher for not fighting harder against the war in Iraq and for taking positions they see as too cozy with the Bush administration and Republicans.

“Absolutely, we could take her out,” Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, also known as Kos of the popular Web site, boasted to the Post. His blog is widely considered to be at the center of the netroots movement.

While Tauscher’s camp vigorously defended itself against the bloggers' charges, pointing to her voting record, the article also suggests that the California Democrat was spooked by the negative attention and motivated her to remove pictures of herself with Bush and Lieberman from her Web site.

But as for its overall impact, Reynolds said recent successes could come back to haunt the liberal blogosphere. Lamont's loss in the general election was really a huge defeat, he contends. By trying to force individual politicians to dance to their tune, the liberal blogosphere may be sending the Democratic party over a cliff.

“The [Democratic politicians] aren’t using the blogs as an early warning system, they are actually taking orders from them,” Reynolds said. “The blogs are out of the mainstream of the electorate and are to be taking them too far left.”

Still, bloggers on the right seem to be taking cues from their liberal counterparts. A new site,, was launched recently in part to harness anger from the right against Republicans they see as betraying the war effort on Capitol Hill.

They pledge to go after Republicans who recently supported or voted for resolutions against the troop surge.

One of its founders, popular conservative blogger Hugh Hewitt, in a recent column attached the name "White Flag Republicans" to the 17 House GOP members who voted with Democrats recently for the non-binding resolution on Bush's plan for Iraq.

“The WFRs will not escape that designation even if the war goes well and Iraq stabilizes. At a crucial moment, they bolted,” he said.

Austin Bay, a syndicated columnist and a co-founder of, insists the Web site will be used primarily to spread information about the War on Terror. Asked about how much it will focus on squeezing Republicans who don’t agree, he replied simply, "In a democracy, all of us have a leadership role."

Blogs in 2008

Bloggers don't always get off the hook when they drive debate. That was evident last month in the early running of the 2008 presidential contest. Two bloggers hired by former Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards were forced to resign after making disparaging remarks about Catholics on their personal Web sites.

The ensuing debate suggested that politicians, eager to court the favor of blogs and use them to their political advantage, should be more careful about the people they take on board. Others, like Reynolds, say bloggers hiring themselves out to campaigns are going to learn fast about keeping to old-school rules.

“My basic thought is [the 2008 election] is one in which there will be a pretty sharp separation between the adults and the adolescents in the political blogosphere,” he said. “There are reasons why people who plan to be political operatives are careful not to leave a back trail” like a blog with potentially embarrassing personal statements.

This also goes for bloggers who don’t disclose when they are working for campaigns or who generate negative and inaccurate rumors and other unethical behavior.

Preston said the medium is also becoming largely self-correcting. “If you throw a rumor out there and it turns out to be false ... you’re going to take a hit. The rest of the blogosphere will treat you like persona non grata,” he said.

Phil Baruth, producer of the, said blogs on the left quickly repudiated Jason Leopold of last year when he insisted that White House policy guru Karl Rove would be indicted in the Scooter Libby investigation. It never happened.

“The message was, ‘this guy is making us look bad,’ and was “a wake-up call” for bloggers trying to elevate the medium, Baruth said.

Meanwhile, Edwards is far from the only candidate hiring bloggers. Republican Sen. John McCain has hired as a blog consultant Patrick Hynes, founder of — formerly known as, which launched attacks against 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry.

But Hynes was not averse to attacking McCain in the blogosphere in 2004. At the time, a brief buzz speculated about a McCain-Kerry ticket. Hynes attributed an “anti-social personality disorder” to McCain, adding he was “just nuts,” according to a cached version of a posting found on the Web.

On the other side, Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton, a favorite target and constant source of debate among the netroots, has hired popular blogger Peter Daou, of the Daou Report. Some say he has enabled Clinton to neutralize some of the negativity from liberal bloggers who say she has been soft on the war.

“(Clinton) didn’t buy good will,” Baruth said. Through Daou, however, she was able to spark some debate over whether she was being unfairly treated. Now, some of the bigger liberal blogs “are sort of waiting and watching,” rather than judging Clinton’s candidacy too soon.

Candidates are seeking advisers with “real street cred,” said Baruth, who doesn’t dispute that candidates seem concerned about what a negative turn in the blogosphere could cost them.

“I’m sure they are looking for legitimate advice,” he said. “But it would be naÏve to think they weren’t bringing (bloggers) on to be in a sense a human shield against the attacks of the blogosphere.”