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Capital Commentary: Netroots Nation: When the Outsiders Become Insiders

A series of dispatches from Washington and the campaign trail.

AUSTIN, Texas—When the bloggers related to the progressive site first gathered in 2006, the political landscape in the country was quite different. Democrats didn’t control any branch of government. The 2008 presidential campaign seemed wide open and the possibility that the freshman senator from Illinois with the funny name and big ears might enter the race wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

The blogger convention in Las Vegas, then called YearlyKos, was fiery and filled with the tensions of a new power base emerging in the party. Columnists like Maureen Dowd trooped out to the Riviera Hotel, on the seedy end of the Las Vegas strip, and Democratic leaders like Harry Reid spoke, albeit warily at times.

The environment this past weekend bespoke a new level of maturity and acceptance among the blogging crowd. This year’s location, the glassy and professional behemoth that is the Austin convention center, is best-known as the setting for tech’s biggest confab, the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, and the national press corps was mostly elsewhere. The bloggers are not news anymore.

Now Howard Dean, who was the first standard-bearer for the netroots in 2004, is the head of the party. founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga—who two years epitomized the angry left and did a live appearance on Meet the Press from the casino floor of the Riviera in Las Vegas—spent this year’s conference having a civil debate with former Congressman Harold Ford Jr., arch-enemy of the netroots, and wandering around the Austin Hilton with his kids. The blogosphere had grown up.

Underscoring the establishment nature of the left’s blogosphere, this time it was the Republicans who were warily exploring the newcomers: Up the road just 11 miles at the Austin Renaissance Hotel, the Republican netroots converged for their first-ever “Right Online” conference, trying to figure out the magic sauce that will let them catch up with the left online.

Throughout this weekend’s gathering in Austin—now grown to some 2,000 bloggers and retitled “Netroots Nation” to distance itself specifically from the DailyKos site—there were signs aplenty of the new position and confidence on the left. The mood, downright festive in past years and infused with energetic combativeness towards the party establishment, was somber and sober this year. Sessions dealt with weighty topics like food policy and questions like “Different Tones and Wider Nets,” about how to evolve the netroots community.

There were panels on energy policy, health care, and national security, all peppered with experts from Washington’s think tanks and academia. The Obama campaign handed out buttons proclaiming its “50 State Strategy,” a concept first advanced and pushed within the party by Dean and the netroots in 2003. The message from Washington to the netroots was clear: We’ve listened and learned.

Underlying everything was a question of governing: If Democrats retake the White House in January 2009, what then? What’s first? What’s next? One panel dealt with the question of how to avoid squandering the “Obama moment” and looked at the challenges of governing ahead.

Such is the confidence in the party and its candidates this year that a daily workshop on how to respond if the Republicans use electronic voting machines to steal this presidential election “again”—rumors online still blame the loss of Ohio in 2004 and the loss of Florida in 2000 on Diebold’s voting machines—didn’t attract a single attendee on any day of the convention.

Few moments underscored the arrival of the blogosphere in the pantheon of the progressive establishment like the reaction to Code Pink’s protesters during the Q&A Saturday morning with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Two summers ago in Las Vegas, Yearly Kos attendees had organized a tongue-in-cheek “tin foil hat making workshop.” But this year, the half-dozen costumed Code Pink women, who have cut a wide swath through Capitol Hill and other political events with their disruptive anti-war protests, were clearly the outsiders. The handful of uniformed Austin police in the back of the room never even had to approach; the netroots organizers themselves handled the situation, keeping Code Pink corralled and silent during Speaker Pelosi’s remarks, and, as the Code Pink protesters began to chant while marching out of the room mid-session, attendees actually booed them and threw wads of paper.

A few other shouted comments at Pelosi—one man demanded “Where the hell’s our god-damned impeachment, Nancy?”—were shushed. All in all, it was a respectful crowd for Pelosi and surprise guest Al Gore, who came in front of the netroots to push his website,

Outside the convention hall, attendees circulated through the career fair and the exhibit hall, complete with author signings and swag like t-shirts and branded pens, just as they would at a dental hygenist’s trade convention. The big party of the weekend was hosted by Huffington Post and GQ magazine—a pairing so odd at first glance that it only reinforced the message that the former outsiders were now the insiders, the tastemakers, the influencers—and the conversation over boar ribs and margaritas was which pressing problem President Obama should address first: Health care? Energy? Education? This was a group with a laser-like focus on the challenges inherent in actually doing the work. Enough talk, now it’s time to get down to business.

It’s hard not to draw the conclusion from this year’s conference that the netroots, founded in 2003 out of anger and frustration with the party, now represent just another progressive interest group gathering, much like the annual conventions of the teachers’ union, La Raza, or the NAACP.

At the end of the convention, Gina Cooper, who for three years has been the convention’s chief (and more recently full-time) organizer and has in that time come to be known as one of the netroots’ spokespeople, announced that she was stepping down—off to pursue new adventures and new challenges. After all, she’d delivered the bloggers into the ranks of the Democratic elite. What more was there to do here?

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