Inside the Cult of Kos

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"If I cared what commenters said, I'd kill myself." In the high-octane non-stop flame war that is the political blogosphere, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga knows how to get attention. He's kidding, of course. We're talking about the rhetorical excesses that can spill out of the impassioned debate that takes place on his creation, DailyKos.com, the world's most popular political blog.

Compact and wiry, Moulitsas, 34, exudes quivering intensity. He speaks in staccato paragraphs, punctuated by intense stares and a raised eyebrow. His eyes bulge slightly outward, as if reacting to the pressure of all the ideas inside his head. Many of those ideas find a home on Daily Kos. A clearinghouse for liberal screeds and progressive perspective on the news, the site claims to get more than 500,000 unique visitors daily, and more than 10,000 members maintain their own sub-blogs (called "diaries") within its reaches. On Thursday, almost a thousand of these loyal readers and contributors — along with Wesley Clark, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and former Virginia governor and potential '08 contender Mark Warner — will gather in Las Vegas for a pep rally-cum-political conference, "Yearly Kos."

And those comments that push Moulitsas into suicidal hyperbole? They tumble in at the rate of about 12,000 a day. You don't generate that kind of following by responding to rhetorical excess with equanimity and reason. You get that kind of following by responding to rhetorical excess with more rhetorical excess. Or, as Moulitsas puts it later, "You can't take pen into a battle with someone who's wielding a machine gun."

Moulitsasís rhetoric and passion have made him a poster boy bomb-thrower. He's the left's own Kurt Cobain and Che Guevara rolled into one, dripping sex appeal for progressives for whom debate has become synonymous with losing, who need a muscular liberal answer to the cowboy swagger adopted by the Bush Administration and its fans.

His fiery phrasing naturally makes Moulitsas an inviting target for the right. Among bloggers, he is probably most famous for his tactless response to the April 2004 video images of the corpses of American military contractors being dragged through the streets of Fallujah, about which he wrote, "I feel nothing... Screw them." While conservatives — and many liberals — criticized Moulitsas's intemperance, the controversy did nothing to slow the site's skyrocketing readership. Indeed, the incident gave him his trademark.

Moulitsas will cop to setting the unabashedly belligerent tone of Daily Kos, right down to the design, which he calls "combative." Its logo is a silhouette of someone charging with a flag, and "the whole military theme of the site is very on purpose." Moulitsas spent part of his childhood in El Salvador during the country's civil war and was an Army artilleryman in Germany for three years, a background that, he says, makes him comfortable with throwing verbal bombs as well. "I'm not The Nation," he says. "I'm not afraid to use swear words. If people want calm, high-minded debate, this is not the site for it." Called in to mediate disputes among community members, Moulitsas has all the patience of a drill sergeant. "I get it all the time: 'Such-and-such was mean to me,'" he says in a mock whine. "I feel like I'm in high school. Suck it up, this is politics." More to the point, "This is war."

The latest salvo in Moulitsasí war on the right is Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics,(www.crashingthegate.com) a primer co-written with Jerome Armstrong on wresting control of the Democratic party away from consultants and D.C. power brokers, a group that Moulitsas refers to as "that clubby elite club." Many of Moulitsasí colleagues in the blog world wonder if Moulitsas isnít a member of that club himself. He claims to have used the site to funnel over $1 million to Democratic candidates across the country and is enough of a power broker to have pull within for the party machinery he so wants to overhaul.

As impressive as his influence is his compensation. Moulitsas started the site in May 2002 after becoming a prolific commentator on another lefty blog, Armstrong's MyDD.com. It was clunky and amateurish; today, back-of-the-envelope calculations about how much money Moulitsas makes off of Daily Kos based on ad rates run well into the six-figure range. He told the New York Times in April that it was closer to $80,000 but admitted to me later that the figure was probably higher. Itís tough to say, Moulitsas argues, because so much of the profits of the site get poured back into it. Whatever his take-home pay is, itís enough to generate respect from unlikely quarters. "Most would argue and itís self-evident that heís the most well compensated blogger on the planet," says Mike Krempasky, co-founder of the virulently conservative RedState.com "I donít say that in a pejorative way. I think thatís great!" Moulitsasís enterprise was in fact the inspiration for Red State, right down to identical software and a spirit of embattled community. A much smaller, less profitable community, Krempasky admits. This does not dampen his admiration for Moulitsasí success. "Maybe itís a lesson that the left is learning," says Krempasky. "One of the best measures of success in any venture is profit and loss. If you can create a business model that can fund things that you care about, all the better."

Glenn Reynolds, the man behind the phenomenally popular — but not as popular — Instapundit.com, says Moulitsas has managed to combine activism and entrepreneurialism in a recipe the bloggers respond to, though not always positively. "Those pictures of the Mercedes with the Kos license plates werenít real, but people had a lot of fun with them," he says of a fake photo that circulated on the net for awhile. Reynolds points to Moulitsasí lesser-known network of baseball blogs as proof that the liberal firebrand is also a red-hot marketer. "The sports blogs underscore the fact that he is an entrepreneur," says Reynolds. "An entrepreneur gets ahead by figuring out what people want and giving it to them, and taking a cut... a manager just tries to get people to do what they want. Heís not a manager."

The book tour for Crashing the Gate kicked off in Los Angeles with a cocktail party co-hosted by liberal luminary Norman Lear and bloggeress to the stars Arianna Huffington — a preview of the landscape inside the gate, perhaps. Boston is his second-to-last stop, and the bar where Moulitsas and Armstrong will speak is filled to capacity — at least a hundred people are there, an organizer tells me. Even Moulitsas can't get in. He and Armstrong stand on the sidewalk while admirers push copies of the book at him and ask him to pose for snapshots. Moulitsas has an open, young face, so it's hard to tell if he's kidding or not when he looks up from the book he's signing and asks, "Why would anyone want to write about me?"

He may intend such modesty to be disarming, but the runaway scale of the Kos phenomenon can make it seem disingenuous. Not only are the site and the upcoming convention named after him, but many of the individual contributors have also sought to launch their own blogs using the Kos moniker. Moulitsas is now attempting to protect his identity with a trademark. "Would you call a site ĎTexas Michael Mooreí? ĎBoston Chomskyí? Thatís MY NAME." Variations on it — not protected legally, one assumes — abound. Yearly Kos participants raised funds by selling a book about the "Kosmos," and contributors to the site gleefully call themselves "Kossacks." Yet they resist the idea that the community of Daily Kos is a cult of personality. Susan Gardener, one of the elect contributors who can post to the blog's front page, says Moulitsas simply "created a huge town hall and then stood back and let it happen." Yet the cell phone pictures snapped and the rapt audiences tell another story. Moulitsas says that the consultants whom he originally planned to excoriate in his book "now are asking for autographs....The same with some reporters." Adam Nagourney, a political reporter for the New York Times who's traveled with Moulitsas and follows the blog, admits to being beguiled. "I like the guy, even though his site called me and Elisabeth Bumiller the two worst reporters in America," says Nagourney. "I know I should hate him, but I can't." Nagourney praises Moulitsas' political insight but notes that the Daily Kos phenomenon is a product of charisma: "He's got it and he knows it."

Moulitsas does know he has become the face of the netroots, though he insists that it's a position he has inherited only by default. The left lacks many telegenic spokespeople, he says. "It's the difference between the Fox News anchors — you know, blond, put-together — and our people. It's like, 'You know, lady, put on a bra. Would it kill you to put on a bra?'" Moulistas is sponsoring a media training session at Yearly Kos; one can only hope that Maidenform is on the agenda.

Watch Time.com for dispatches this week from Ana Marie Cox at the Yearly Kos convention in Las Vegas.

Correction: The original version of this story cited a quote in the Washington Monthly that the magazine later disavowed.