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Liberal 'Netroots' Convention Will Test Democratic Activists

David Lightman

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.

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?

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

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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?

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."


About Netroots Nation

Congressional Progressive Caucus

Campaign for America's Future


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