Liberal “Netroots” Convention Will Test Democratic Activists

Washington – Activists in the liberal blogosphere face a crossroads: They had tremendous success in 2008 helping to turn voter anger into votes for Democrats, but persuading Congress and the White House to adopt their agenda is much harder.

“There’s definitely a frustration there,” said Raven Brooks, the executive director of Netroots Nation, the Internet liberals’ leading voice.

Starting on Thursday, Netroots Nation will convene for four days in Las Vegas. There its members will quiz House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., among others, about why Washington doesn’t move more quickly to end the Afghanistan war or give more help to the millions who are out of work.

They’ll probably be told that (a) Washington works in complex, deliberate ways, and one should be happy to achieve 80 percent of one’s goals, and (b) since Democrats took control of Washington 18 months ago, they’ve won the enactment of historic legislation on health care, economic stimulus and financial regulation — no small achievements.

While Netroots Nation leaders are sophisticated enough to understand, they’re also torn. Should they keep pushing hard for more accomplishments this year — perhaps on energy, climate change, immigration and job creation — knowing well that most Democrats in Congress, worried about re-election prospects, are unlikely to go along? Or should they agree to compromise and incremental progress?

“We get better results when we advocate for what we believe in. I don’t think everyone in Washington gets that,” said Arshad Hasan, the executive director of Vermont-based Democracy for America, founded by former Gov. Howard Dean, the Democrat whose unsuccessful 2004 White House bid often is seen as the first major Internet-driven presidential campaign.

Those familiar with Washington, though, know that getting things done takes not only 218 of the 255 Democrats in the House of Representatives — rarely easy when at least 50 of them consider themselves moderates — but also 60 senators in a chamber where the party controls 58 seats. (It will become 59 on Tuesday when a new West Virginia senator, Carte Goodwin, is sworn in to replace the late Robert Byrd.)

“The process of how do you deal with power has been a learning process, and people have struggled with it,” said Robert Borosage, a co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal group.

Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a moderate Democratic research group, put the dilemma differently:

“Have they matured?” he asked of the netroots. “They have to decide whether they want to make the grubby political compromises often needed to govern effectively.”

There’s another big question to be answered at this gathering: How does the Democratic Party deal with them?

The blogosphere has been crucial to the party’s recent success; as Borosage put it, “What they’ve done is taught Democrats to fight.”

However, the netroots are unabashed, aggressive liberals in a country where liberalism is hardly universally popular — even among Democrats, much less independents — and that concerns centrists and party strategists.

“There is a growing gap between the base of the Democratic Party and the voters who will decide the election,” said Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., who ran as a centrist for governor of Alabama and lost his party’s primary.

While “most Democrats have at least a touch of economic populism,” he said, many recoil at being asked to vow blind allegiance to any rigid ideology. The more they fear that Democrats are lurching left, he said, the more they will look elsewhere politically.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the party was in no danger of being a captive of the left, however.

“We have a diverse caucus. That’s our strength,” he said.

He and other Democratic leaders are trying to unify this year’s congressional candidates behind an anti-Republican message: that if the GOP were in charge, things would be much worse.

However, to many liberals, that’s a hollow, defensive message.

Van Hollen disagrees: “That’s not a defensive message. It’s a contrast message,” he said.

It’s hardly one that the blogosphere wants to promote, though.

Darcy Burner, the executive director of, thinks that too many Democrats have close ties to corporate America, which makes middle-class issues less of a priority. Democracy for America’s Hasan sees a disconnect between the views of people outside and inside Washington.

Among the liberals’ complaints: Democrats should have pushed harder for the government-run “public option” health care plan. The House agreed, but Senate Democratic centrists refused to go along.

One problem for Democrats throughout the last 18 months, said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., a co-chairman of the 83-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, is that party leaders spent too much effort wooing Republicans on health care and other priorities, when it was clear by early last year that the GOP would unite in opposition to Democratic initiatives, with only the rarest exceptions.

“Democrats need to remember we’re about helping the little guy,” Grijalva said.

For weeks, House Democratic centrists balked at backing big emergency-spending bills, fearing that constituents would be upset that they increased the budget deficit.

“That’s fool’s gold,” said Grijalva, referring to money saved by not passing those bills. “By not investing in job creation and state support, the economy’s going to get worse.”

While the Democratic moderates and liberals clashed — and Republicans stood solid in opposition — some 2.5 million jobless workers have lost extended unemployment benefits.

So are the netroots being principled or too stubborn? Should they keep dreaming big legislative dreams or settle for splitting the difference?

“What people in the netroots want is bold action to solve the problems,” said Brooks, the group’s executive director. “There’s going to be a lot to figure out at this convention.”