In Defense of Hotline's William Beutler (By Hotline's William Beutler)
by William Beutler, Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 09:45:02 AM EST
On Saturday morning you may have read Matt Stoller eviscerating my Washington Examiner analysis of blogger-backed primary challenges in 2006. He's since offered me this chance to explain and expand here at MyDD, and I appreciate the opportunity.
First of all, I would like to separate the op-ed from my day job, writing Hotline's Blogometer. Matt advised you to take the Blogometer with a "massive grain of salt" from here on, but I think that's unfair. My op-ed took a clear position and gave advice; the Blogometer's purpose is to give an overview of the political blogging scene. When I do make arguments there, they're generally descriptive rather than prescriptive. So I just ask that you judge the Blogometer based on the Blogometer itself.
Next, I will concede something: I was not fully informed when I wrote that that no national groups had endorsed the strategy of targeting incumbents -- I was not aware that the AFL-CIO was already backing Ciro Rodriguez. However, the MoveOn endorsement didn't come until the day the article went to press, and the DFA endorsement wasn't in the Hotline until the day after. Had I published this independently on the web, I would have had strikethrough tags at my disposal -- advantage, blogosphere. So I may have spoken too soon: Apparently Democrats are getting into Club for Growth-style primary challenges. And as I'll get to below, I think that could be a mistake.
Matt points out that I didn't cite any blogs in the piece. But this is simply a drawback of the short op-ed format: in 700 words one just doesn't have the space to make a complex argument and provide citations along the way. What's more, most readers of the Examiner wouldn't know MyDD from MySpace, so I only referenced Daily Kos, by far the best-known political blog. If I had included citations on the Matt singles out, they likely would have been this and this for bloggers urging Dems to back the filibuster; this and this for previous support of primary challengers; this and this for bloggers targeting "Vichy Democrats" who supported cloture.
Nor does one have the space for much nuance; Matt was outspokenly opposed to the filibuster, and I quoted him in the Blogometer about it at the time. That doesn't change the fact that it was a minority position. Matt also protests that he doesn't support Chuck Pennacchio, and I never said he did. Right here at MyDD though, Chris Bowers is backing Pennacchio, even though he acknowledges he can't win. (I don't begrudge Chris the ideological stand, but it still strikes me as misdirected energy -- after all, Democrats are nowhere near becoming a pro-life party.)
Markos is fond of saying that the neroots aren't about ideology. That may be so, although I wonder if Matt disagrees, as he criticizes me for saying "woe to" a Dem politician who misreads the blogosphere -- it's not rocket science, he says. Not to him, to be sure. But he might consider the fact that a lot of smart people find the blogosphere particularly inscrutable. (One reason more politicians haven't engaged the netroots is because they don't understand it. Attitudes like Matt's are one reason why they're reticent.) The left-blogosphere is a diverse crowd, and not everyone agrees with each other. That's a fine thing. But it would be a mistake not to realize there's a cumulative effect, and that's what I described.
As for my referencing the term "Vichy Democrats,"Thersites2 is correct in his suspicion that my column was partially inspired by his blog. But I'm not the first Beltway writer to notice its use on the left -- Howard Fineman picked up on it last fall, and Michael Crowley associated it with Howard Dean's approach in 2004. In fact, it didn't even originate with the blogosphere -- the late Mary McGrory attributed it to a "disillusioned liberal" in 1995 after a number of House Democrats voted with the Republicans to buy more Stealth bombers.
Now, I believe Markos when he says he despises the term -- it does drift too far into Godwin territory (I'm not sure why Steve Gilliard assumes I don't know what "Vichy" means) -- but nevertheless both "Vichy Democrats" and "Vichy Dems" are meta tags in use by contributors to dKos. The phrase was timely, punchy, and summed up the anger I saw directed against moderate and conservative Democrats.
Now, I've been asked why Matt Brown would do any worse against Lincoln Chafee than Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island. I ask why the challenge was necessary; their differences on Iraq are a matter of minutes, not degrees. Brown's climb in the polls has been impressive, but it owes to his TV presence more than anything else, and now they're just tied. Meanwhile Whitehouse has banked 5 times what Brown's got, and the NRSC is pulling out all the stops for Lincoln Chafee.
Let's go to Montana. John Morrison has won statewide more than once, is remarkably similar to Tester on the issues, has actually raised more money online than Tester, and has a pretty substantial lead. It's possible Tester could catch him, but like in Rhode Island, what's really gained? I don't need to tell you that Conrad Burns is in just as much trouble, if not more, than Chafee. But after a primary battle, the eventual nominee (still likely Morrison) is almost surely going to have less money and more liabilities. Name recognition is good to have, except when the name is attached to statements that come back to haunt the nominee in the fall.
If I had to guess, I'd say the reason Tester, Brown, Pennacchio, Hackett in OH SEN and others have so much blogger support is because they actively cater to the netroots. They speak in an inspiring, combative manner, they tend to be younger, and they hire well-known bloggers. That's good news for the netroots -- bloggers have clout. But it's limited, and might not have much more to grow. The blogosphere isn't a cross-section of the party, it's a constituency.
Matt also disputes my stating that "No candidate supported by Moulitsas has yet won a seat in Congress." I'm afraid my phrasing was imprecise -- I was talking about the "Kos 15" from 2004. Now, Markos has argued to me the strategy of expanding the playing field rather than winning every race, and I respect the long-term thinking. That said, 0-15 is still notable. Matt lists Stephanie Herseth and Ben Chandler as Kos-backed candidates. I tend to see these as moderate, establishment-backed candidates that bloggers accepted as well. But I'll reconsider my position on them. After all, if my argument is that the netroots and the national party need to be complementary rather than adversarial, these were examples of how that can work.
I get the impression that the netroots oppose the establishment as much as they do because they fear the party will run off the rails entirely otherwise. I don't buy the notion that the Democrats are on the verge of becoming a permanent minority party; rather, it seems to me that the divisions over the Iraq war have exaggerated the differences between the party's liberal and moderate wings. Republicans have held all 3 branches of government for only about five years and already they're in danger of losing it. The Democrats' disagreement on matters of style over substance make it less likely the Republicans will.
I realize much of my argument tracks with establishment position, and I don't mean to say the DSCC or DCCC are blameless -- that would be a different op-ed -- but it would be wiser to expand the field, as Markos tried in 2004, than go mano-a-mano with the entire Beltway Goliath this year. Instead I see the netroots and party establishment pulling in different directions, and especially in races where they don't need to.