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Dems Tangled in Netroots
"To clarify, Rep. Tauscher is not a blue dog." The emphatic one-line e-mail, dashed off by a spokesman for California Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, is one of the first signs that a new coalition of unions and Internet activists has gotten the Democratic Party's attention. Tauscher has long been a probusiness voice and outspoken member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition. Yet recently her conservatism--from supporting the GOP bankruptcy bill to airing her concern that liberals might run Congressional leaders "over the left cliff"--has put her in the cross hairs of an effort to reform the Democratic Party from the bottom up. She was branded a "top offender" on the website of Working For Us, a new political action committee pressing Democratic incumbents to support "economic security," a "living wage for all workers" and a "progressive political agenda." Breaking sharply with the posture of most progressive organizations, the group will not simply criticize Democrats who fail that test. It will try to end their careers.
Working For Us was founded by, among others, veteran labor strategist Steve Rosenthal, and it's backed by unions, such as the Teamsters, Steelworkers and SEIU, that traditionally cultivate close relationships with Democratic politicians. But Working For Us is following the confrontational approach of top liberal bloggers, promising primaries to depose disloyal incumbents. Rosenthal says the group is a "marriage of the grassroots and the netroots," uniting door-to-door organizers, unions and bloggers in an effort to "change the tenor of politics."
The strategy is set by two boards made up of traditional labor leaders like SEIU secretary-treasurer Anna Burger and pioneers from the Internet left like MoveOn.org heads and Markos Moulitsas, founder of the top Democratic blog Daily Kos. Moulitsas has spent years fanning grassroots opposition to Democratic incumbents once considered untouchable. He rallied national support for Ciro Rodriguez's 2006 primary challenge to Henry Cuellar, a Texas Congressman who supports estate tax repeal, free trade and George W. Bush, whom he endorsed in 2000. (Cuellar squeaked through the primary with 53 percent and went on to re-election.)
Moulitsas often hammers on three faults of conservative Democrats: economic conservatism, disloyalty to the party and desertion of their home districts' priorities. In a recent blog entry making the case against Tauscher, for example, he highlighted that she "consistently undermined the Democratic Party," led the charge for the Republican bankruptcy bill and "acts like she represents Utah while serving in a 59 percent Kerry district."
The district's presidential voting history may sound more like political trivia than cause for revolt, but it's actually a crucial prerequisite for netroots primary challenges. None of the incumbents targeted by the blogosphere in the last cycle hail from vulnerable districts or red states; they are all Democrats who are disloyal to the caucus and vote more conservatively than their constituents. Working For Us is adopting the same strategic standard to select its targets.
The group says it will challenge only those Democrats who are out of touch with constituents, not antilabor incumbents in antilabor areas. "How do you put some backbone into Democrats so they begin to act the right way?" asks Rosenthal. By confronting them with the reality that their constituents prefer strong economic populists over meek incumbents, he argues. Rosenthal says he will "stir the pot" in more than fifteen districts next year, coordinating outreach, media and blog campaigns, and officially challenge two or three Democratic incumbents. While the group says it is too early to finalize its targets, Moulitsas told The Nation he wants to unseat Al Wynn, a Maryland Democrat who has backed Republican legislation on bankruptcy, oil drilling, flag burning, Terri Schiavo and the estate tax, along with Representatives Tauscher and Cuellar. Rosenthal argues that they do not have to win any races to be effective. "The primary is not the victory; the victory is getting Democrats to act like Democrats," he says.
Win or lose, the effort has already drawn sharp criticism from party strategists and activists, including some labor leaders. AFSCME president Gerald McEntee recently attacked Working For Us at a Congressional retreat, declaring, "In blue America, there's no room for PACs to chase vulnerable members they have differences with." The trial lawyers association, another powerful Democratic-leaning interest group, withdrew from the Working For Us coalition once its focus on primaries became clear. Rosenthal says he has fielded complaints from House majority leader Steny Hoyer on down to local union leaders. "Let's go after weak Republicans, not weak Democrats," said one Democratic consultant, who requested anonymity to avoid antagonizing bloggers. Another common criticism is that the strategy will push the Democratic majority "too far left"--off that cliff Tauscher warned about. Channeling the conventional wisdom in Washington, Time columnist Joe Klein recently derided Working For Us as a "suicidal waste of time" for left-wing "extremist" bloggers.
Yet the group's populist primary challenges do not fit into the left-right paradigm. The current revival of economic populism encompasses old-school liberals like New York's Charlie Rangel and Southern conservatives like Virginia's Jim Webb. As Moulitsas argued in a phone interview, "Economic issues are the one thing that unites the Democratic Party, from its most liberal wing to its most conservative wing."
Most important, if Working For Us sticks to the preferences of local constituents, the program will advance the democratic process more than a single ideology. Nowadays competitive Congressional races are a rarity in most of the country because both parties squash primaries and gerrymander districts. Members of Congress are almost always re-elected--even with high voter turnout, the "closely contested" 2004 election still sent 98 percent of incumbents back to the House. By backing primary candidates who would not otherwise be viable, Working For Us promises a little more democracy in a few handpicked districts--not exactly an extremist proposition. Once those campaigns are off the ground, of course, unions and bloggers cannot control the results. In a rare twist for modern Congressional campaigns, the outcome will actually depend on voters.
Ari Melber is a regular contributor to The Nation, focusing on American politics, technology and Internet activism.
© 2007 The Nation