Over the weekend, the U.S.S. Hillary Clinton took a hit off the port bow from uber blogger Markos Moulitsas, proprietor of the left-leaning Daily Kos and a spokesman for the liberal netroots activists who see themselves as the future of the Democratic party. Writing a guest column in The Washington Post, he kossed the '08 frontrunner as "a heartless, passionless machine," establishment puppet, and heir to the Bill Clinton legacy "that decimated the national Democratic party" during the '90s.
So there it is, laid bare:
Even at a time when virtually all liberals and Democrats are united in their hunger to defeat President Bush's GOP in 2006 and win back the White House in 2008, there's still enough energy for some serious intramural animosity. The Moulitsas manifesto is clearly intended as a warning to what he calls the "D.C. insiders" that a Hillary Clinton candidacy will be resisted by "those of us in the netroots," whom he claims will soon be wielding major clout over the nomination process. In his words, "real power in the party has shifted."
I have several reactions.
1. His remarks are a signal that the '08 Democratic race will be turbulent (at least until the front-loaded primary calendar yields a quick winner), because the liberal netrooters seem intent on finding their own candidate -- someone who is either a blank slate on Iraq (perhaps ex-Virginia governor Mark Warner), or openly antiwar (perhaps Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold), and prompting their Internet donors to put up the bucks.
That, in itself, will be a test of whether the netrooters are truly capable of exercising "real power," or whether, as many suspect, their professed prowess is mostly hype. And it will be interesting to see, over the next 18 months, whether further attacks from the liberal netroots will tempt Clinton to tiptoe leftward, at the expense of her red-state centrist strategy (which I recently saw in action, during a visit to Kentucky).
2. Applying the same fact-checking techniques that prove so fruitful when gauging the claims of the Bush regime, it appears that many of Moulitsas' arguments lack forensic merit. For instance, to buttress his argument that the netroots are the new power brokers, he lauds "Howard Dean's transformation campaign" of 2004, which, as he sees it, sent the message that "no longer would D.C. insiders impose their candidates on us without our input."
Somehow he overlooked the fact that Dean was transformative only up until the moment when he had to face real voters. Then the real voters sent him packing. He lost 17 of 18 primaries. I was in Iowa when it all started, and I sat in many kitchens talking to average Democrats, mostly grassroots liberals, and very few of them cared a whit about Dean's netroots apparatus. On the contrary, they judged Dean as too inexperienced, particularly on foreign policy. They moved toward John Kerry not because he was "imposed" by "D.C. insiders," but because he seemed to have the strongest foreign policy experience of anyone in the Democratic field that winter.
3. Which brings me to another point. Moulitsas dismisses Hillary Clinton as "the establishment's choice," but, in reality, she is trouncing her Democratic '08 rivals in the early polls because she has a lot of support from rank-and-file Democrats who are far removed from the Washington Beltway.
In other words, the liberal netrooters are just one constituency within the broader ranks of party activists, including state and local elected officials, union members, volunteer canvassers, public employes -- all of whom may read the liberal blogs and even send money sometimes, but nevertheless are not guided by the blogthink.
4. It's also noteworthy that, in order to fuel his criticism of Hillary Clinton, he assailed her husband for failing to breach the 50 percent mark in either of his presidential races, somehow overlooking the fact that he was nevertheless the only Democrat to win two terms of office since Franklin D. Roosevelt... and that to this day, many African Americans in particular (another powerful bloc within the party base) wish that Clinton could have run for a third term. I personally saw that sentiment while talking to southern blacks during the 2004 primaries.
None of this means that I am making a brief for Hillary Clinton, and I have no idea at this point whether she is electable (not a single friend of mine believes that she is, although conservative commentator John Podhoretz seems to think so). Nor does this mean that I am dismissing the netrooters out of hand, or that I share centrist Democratic analyst Marshall Wittmann's view that they're all just "McGovernites with modems."
But they have yet to prove that their clout is as great as they claim it is, or that they can effectively sink Hillary's ship. I'll keep an open mind on that. Moulitsas is hosting a big conference next month in Las Vegas; it's intended in part to trumpet the netrooters' prowess, and I'm looking forward to showing up and taking their measure.