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Hillary Rolls On: Are Netroots a Paper Tiger?

Jeff Cohen

As a longtime progressive tired of ineffective protesting, I've watched in glee as MoveOn has amassed political power by Webbing a few million of us and our dollars together. I'm a proud MoveOn member, even though I disagree sometimes with its leaders (mostly over too-cozy relations with top Democrats). And as a longtime proponent of independent media, I'm gleeful that liberal/progressive bloggers have seized a new medium to mobilize millions of activists and confront a Democratic elite that seemed unwilling to confront and beat Team Bush. Given my glee, it's difficult for me to have to pose this question: Are the Netroots a paper tiger - more roar than bite? Despite being overwhelmingly opposed to the nomination of Hillary Clinton, the Netroots have so far done little to slow down her coronation. Boosted by celebrity-worshipping corporate media (and a maximum donation from Rupert Murdoch himself), Hillary Clinton keeps rolling on - allied with the corporate lobbyists and Democratic insiders loathed even by moderately liberal bloggers. Meanwhile, Clinton has never been popular among the Netroots. She's never moved out of single digits in the (unscientific) monthly straw poll of DailyKos readers, while John Edwards has averaged 38 percent in the last six months among Kossacks, with Barack Obama averaging 26 percent. In an April straw poll of MoveOn members following a virtual town hall on Iraq, the results were Obama (28%), Edwards (25%), Dennis Kunicich (17%) and Bill Richardson (12%) - followed by Clinton in fifth place with 11 percent. Clinton did better following a July town hall on climate change, but finished in third place, 17 points behind Edwards. The reality is stark: While it's hard to find a MoveOn leader or respected progressive blogger who supports Clinton, they can't (or won't) stop her. Several factors may explain why most Netroots leaders are not taking stronger action: 1) They "misunderestimate" the potential hazards of another Clinton White House. While progressives desperately want a Democratic president, the last Clinton in the White House subverted the progressive agenda. Eight years of Clintonite triangulation caused the Democratic Party to decline at every level of government. Hillary today is surrounded by the same staff and would likely appoint the same corporate types to top jobs as Clinton I, where big decisions were often corrupt and calculated toward moneyed interests. The toughest brawl Bill Clinton was willing to wage (besides saving his own hide from impeachment) was against the Democratic base: for the corporate-backed NAFTA. Through the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Bill brought us far more media conglomeration than George W. He pardoned well-connected fugitive financier Marc Rich, while leaving Native American activist Leonard Peltier to rot in prison despite pleas from Amnesty International and others. Hillary's contribution to Clinton I was her botched healthcare proposal, a corporate-originated "reform" that would have enshrined a half-dozen of the largest insurance companies at the center of the system, and was so convoluted it never came up for a vote. What we've seen of Hillary Clinton in the Senate and on the campaign trail suggests that Clinton II would indeed be a sorry sequel. Today she's winning the endorsement of Republican CEOs, after having had Murdoch host a benefit for her at the Fox News building in 2006. Just as Bill Clinton's spine achieved a rare firmness while battling for NAFTA, we recently observed in Hillary a rare passion and firmness on a single issue: her YearlyKos defense of lobbyists, including those who "represent corporations that employ a lot of people." Like Bill campaigning as a populist and governing as a corporatist, Hillary's stump speech proclaims she'll end the Iraq war in January 2009, while she assures the New York Times of a long-term U.S. military presence inside Iraq. She's tried to explain away her vote to authorize the war, but avoids mention of her even more dubious vote hours earlier against requiring United Nations approval (or, if U.N. approval failed, a second Congressional authorization) before war could begin. Her overall bellicosity on Iran and the Middle East wins praise from conservative pundits; her "Israel-right-or-wrong" stance could make Christian Zionists blush. In too much of the liberal blogosphere, history begins with the Florida election theft of 2000, and events before that time seem ancient and irrelevant. There is insufficient grasp of how the Clintons' rise to power was intertwined with the corporate-sponsored Democratic Leadership Council - set up 22 years ago to weaken the power of the grassroots (labor, feminist, civil rights) inside the party. Still on the attack in 2004, the DLC targeted new villains, like MoveOn and the Dean upsurge. 2) They want to be Democratic "team players." Matt Bai's new book on the Democratic Party, "The Argument," has a passing reference to Hillary Clinton's courtship of MoveOn leaders in private meetings: "Her charm appeared to have paid off: while MoveOn's members remained furious at Clinton for voting with Bush on the war resolution, its leaders refused to criticize her publicly." In truth, MoveOn leaders have gone beyond refusing to publicly criticize Hillary Clinton - actually finding bizarre excuses to praise her on some of her worst issues, like Iran and Iraq. During the 2006 Democratic Senate primary in New York, it was not a shock that MoveOn's leadership would not help Clinton's antiwar challenger, Jonathan Tasini, an under-funded long shot. But what purpose was served by not criticizing her when she brazenly refused to even debate Tasini on the war - or by lauding her for a McCain-like critique of Don Rumsfeld's war "mismanagement"? With MoveOn avoiding criticism of Clinton in '05, '06 and half of '07, then when? Netroots leaders seem almost mute today as Hillary Clinton makes full use of old media/old money advantages. Bloggers who loudly championed the Dean insurgency are oddly quiescent as the candidate of the party establishment gains ground. Have these young insurgents become Democratic Party elder statespersons - team players first and foremost? Has the courtship by Party insiders quieted them? What animated the meteoric growth of MoveOn and progressive blogs was a crucial insight: that the Democratic establishment was too spineless or clueless to stand up to the Bush agenda. This insight has never been more relevant than now - with Bush an unpopular lame duck and Democratic leaders in Congress offering "little other than one failure after the next since taking power in January," in Glenn Greenwald's words. Ancient history, from 1993-1994, teaches us that loyalty to party should never come before loyalty to principles - and that which Democrats hold power can be as important as whether Democrats hold power. I was a young(er) columnist when Bill Clinton entered the White House and Democrats controlled Congress. We didn't get promised campaign finance reform; we didn't get promised investment in the cities; we didn't even get a vote on healthcare - since the Clintons had undermined and triangulated the 100 Democrats in Congress co-sponsoring a bill for nonprofit National Health Insurance. But we did get NAFTA. And soon - inevitably and predictably -we got the Gingrich counterrevolution. 3) There's no Dean campaign to unite them - just "Edwama." In the last three months of DailyKos reader polls, Edwards and Obama have combined for more than 60 percent of the vote - as against only 8 percent for Clinton. Despite being hammered by corporate media, Edwards retains deep Netroots support as he pushes a progressive, populist message that evokes Bobby Kennedy's 1968 campaign. Fueled by Internet fundraising, Obama has inspired a huge grassroots following, especially among youth and people of color. Both are tagging Clinton as the candidate of moneyed lobbyists. Either - especially Edwards - would likely appoint a cabinet quite different than the corporate Clintonites one would get from Hillary. At this stage, it looks like only Edwards or Obama can beat Clinton; polls of Iowa Democrats show a three-way race among them. Were Edwards or Obama to drop out of the race today, Netroots support would likely galvanize behind the other. The current 63-8 percent "Edwama" edge over Clinton among Kossacks would become at least a 50-15 percent landslide for Edwards or for Obama. (And it's hard to argue Clinton is more electable in a general election, since she provokes even more loathing among conservatives than wariness among progressive activists.) The reality is that neither Edwards nor Obama is dropping out. There is no Dean candidate at the moment. But that should not prevent Netroots leaders and progressive bloggers from speaking out loudly and clearly about their objections to Clinton's policies and associations, and the negative consequences of her leading the Democrats in 2008 - in long-term electability, governance and movement building.

* *

Reporting the results of his July straw poll in which Edwama outpolled Clinton 7 to 1, DailyKos founder Markos gloated that he was among the 5 percent who voted "No Freakin' Clue": "I'm enjoying the campaigns without any emotional investment in any of them. It's quite liberating. I wish more of you would give it a shot." Here was a key Netroots backer of Dean sitting on the sidelines four years later, encouraging a laissez-faire attitude over who is the 2008 Democratic nominee. If 2004 taught anything, it's that it matters mightily who the nominee is. Despite all the organizing, fundraising, phone-banking, canvassing and concertizing, it's hard to beat even a discredited Republican with a Democratic candidate who comes across as a vacillating and calculating Washington insider. I was never prouder to be a MoveOn member as when, after Kerry's defeat, Eli Pariser of MoveOn PAC blasted corporate Democrats in a mass email: "For years, the Party has been led by elite Washington insiders who are closer to corporate lobbyists than they are to the Democratic base. But we can't afford four more years of leadership by a consulting class of professional election losers." Eli's email called for a "bold Democratic vision" - not a phrase typically associated with Hillary Clinton. If Clinton coasts to the Democratic nomination without need of Netroots support, the "elite Washington insiders" denounced by Eli will be laughing - ad commissions in hand - all the way to the bank. And they'll be ridiculing the Netroots as a paper tiger. Jeff Cohen is founder of the media watch group FAIR, former TV pundit/producer, and author of "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media."

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Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is an activist and author. Cohen was an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC. He is the author of "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media" - and a co-founder of the online action group, His website is

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