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Meet the New Bosses

After crashing the gate of the political establishment, bloggers are looking more like the next gatekeepers.

| Wed Jun. 20, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

Last June, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, former soldier, one-time Reagan Republican, and proprietor of the wildly successful liberal blog Daily Kos, sent an email to an invitation-only listserv known as Townhouse. Consisting of some 300 liberal bloggers, journalists, activists, and consultants, the list was an outgrowth of weekly strategy sessions held at a D.C. bar—a forum for brainstorming on issues and tactics, and a means of creating a "unified message," as Moulitsas later put it. Its members were bound by one main rule: Nothing from the list was to be quoted or distributed, which, this being politics, meant that a leak was bound to happen.

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In the message that would end up putting Townhouse, briefly, on the outside world's radar, Moulitsas asked list members to "ignore" a blog item by the New York Times' Chris Suellentrop that revealed that Jerome Armstrong—founder of the popular liberal blog MyDD and a close friend and business associate of Moulitsas—had once been implicated in a stock-touting scheme. Suellentrop noted parallels between stock-hyping and bloggers' touting of candidates such as Howard Dean, who had hired both Armstrong and Moulitsas as consultants during his 2004 presidential campaign. Moulitsas, who had recently coauthored the book Crashing the Gate with Armstrong, told Townhouse members that these revelations were "a nonstory." "So far," he wrote, "this story isn't making the jump to the traditional media, and we shouldn't do anything to help make that happen." He urged participants to "starve it of oxygen."

When The New Republic's Jason Zengerle blogged about the Townhouse email, "The Kos" urged readers to cancel their subscriptions, writing, "It is now beyond clear that the dying New Republic is mortally wounded and cornered, desperate for relevance. It has lost half its circulation since the blogs arrived on the scene and they no longer (thank heavens!) have a monopoly on progressive punditry. We have hit their bottom line, we are hitting their patron saint hard (Joe Lieberman) and this is how they respond. By going after the entire movement." Many of Moulitsas' followers—Kossacks, they call themselves—then filled Zengerle's inbox with all manner of invective.

The irony is this: Moulitsas' reaction echoes the very control-the-message philosophy the blogosphere once rose up to fight. Indeed, challenging the methods of an entrenched political elite was the subject of Crashing the Gate.

MoveOn Keeps Moving On

Michael Cornfield, Political Scientist, Tech Consultant
MoveOn has somehow found a way to continuously wield power. To me, they remain the most fascinating players online, far more than the presidential candidates.

David All, Republican Tech Consultant
Did you listen to the MoveOn town hall last night? I mean, that thing was awesome—a perfect use of technology. We have nothing on the right that compares to that.

Phil de Vellis, "Hillary 1984" Creator
How many people listened to that thing? 40,000? 80,000? Which is fantastic. But to win an election, you need hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, depending on the state.

Eli Pariser, MoveOn Director
If you ask any MoveOn member, they say this is an easy way to stay connected to politics in five minutes a month. And that's part of the service we provide. We find those people and move them and give them ways to go deeper. That's not a socioeconomic thing.

Chris Rabb,
MoveOn is incredibly popular, but I've never met an active black person in MoveOn.

Today, top liberal bloggers have become an elite in their own right—one that is increasingly part of the political hierarchy. They've joined campaigns and drummed up lucrative consulting work. One, Swing State Project contributor Tim Tagaris, was tapped by the Democratic National Committee to head up its Internet outreach efforts, went on to work on Ned Lamont's Senate campaign, and is now a member of Senator Chris Dodd's campaign staff. Berkeley-based Moulitsas is in regular communication with Democratic leadership aides, and, on occasion, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid himself, according to the Washington Monthly. "Politicians court big bloggers now," says a national political reporter who wished to remain anonymous for fear of blogger wrath. "They have dinner with them. They have lunch with them. They stroke them in the hopes of getting favorable things written about them and harnessing that energy." Some politicians probably prefer holding court with bloggers rather than old-school pundits, says Michael Turk, the e-campaign director for the Bush/Cheney '04 campaign and, later, the Republican National Committee. "They say, 'Here's a way to make people who think like us echo our comments.'"

Almost as soon as the netroots arose, so did the questions—about conflicts of interest, motivation, and disclosure. After the 2004 election, Zephyr Teachout, who with her colleagues at the Dean campaign was widely credited with creating a new model of Internet outreach, noted on her blog that the campaign had retained Moulitsas and Armstrong "largely in order to ensure that they said positive things about Dean." (Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, has disputed Teachout's characterization, as has the campaign's director of Internet communications, Mathew Gross.)

As it turned out, Armstrong took a hiatus from blogging during the campaign, and Moulitsas put a disclaimer on his blog's masthead disclosing his relationship with Dean, urging readers to "take what I write with the proper grain of salt." But by then, Moulitsas and Armstrong had formed a consulting firm (since disbanded), whose clients, aside from Dean, they refused to name. And in the end, whether the conflicts of interest were real or perceived didn't matter: In politics, as in journalism—the two worlds the blogosphere straddles—it's often the appearance of taint that counts. "I don't trust the framing of anyone who is regularly writing and speaking about people they are taking money from," as Teachout put it.

The 2006 midterms saw a new wave of bloggers sign on to campaigns. Among many others, Lowell Feld and Abraham Chernilla (Raising Kaine) went to work for James Webb; Jon Henke (QandO) became the netroots coordinator for Webb's opponent, George Allen; Matt Singer (Left in the West) worked for Jon Tester's Senate campaign; and Aldon Hynes (Orient Lodge) and Tim Tagaris were on Lamont's payroll. On Election Day, Senate Majority Leader-to-be Harry Reid saluted Daily Kos readers in a video message: "In the past five months, you have donated countless hours exposing Republicans and volunteering for Democratic candidates," he said. (The Kos community had also raised more than $1.5 million for Democratic candidates through the fundraising site ActBlue.) "Without the netroots, Democrats would not be in the position we are in today," Reid added. "It is as simple as that."

"It's a very conscious effort to build a power structure," says Gross, the former Dean staffer who's now advising John Edwards. "These are people who are not just blogging, but who are thinking very sophisticatedly about what the Republicans did for 20 years to get to the point of being able to dominate the cultural discourse."

In many ways, says Gross, "it's the oldest story in the book. The establishment sort of loses its bearings, loses its compass, and from the bottom people come up, get involved, and make their way into the centers of power." He laughed. "Then in 20 years someone's going to come along and lop off all our heads."

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