Why Ambitious Pols Make Their Pilgrimage to Yearly Kos

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The bulletin arrives halfway into the panel on progressive candidates, an email missive I read over the shoulder of the guy in front of me: "I saw Markos and Atrios wandering around looking for food." As the men behind the nation's two most influential liberal blogs — dailykos.com and atrios.blogspot.com — Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and Duncan Black draw interested stares, small crowds and quiet, admiring gossip from the bloggers, lurkers and activists gathered here at the Riviera. They are the Brangelina of Yearly Kos.

Moulitsas keeps a low profile for the first day, an absence that highlights how Thursday's sincere and dutiful workshops on organizing differ from the intense and volatile political debate readers have come to expect from Daily Kos itself. One journalist presses some workshop attendees on the apparent disconnect between the online bomb-throwers and the chatty, eager conference-goers. A woman explains that one would never attack someone in person the way you can online: "It's the difference between bombing someone from 50,000 feet and sticking a bayonet between their eyes." And most people, she observes, can't deal with sticking a bayonet between the eyes. "Unless you're really psychopathic."

By the time Moulitsas makes his first official appearance, it’s after those cordial conferencees have been milling around at a buffet reception for an hour or so, drinking from the cash bar and getting glittery-eyed. The cartoonist Tom Tomorrow warms up the crowd, reading his cartoons aloud as they are projected on giant screens behind him. It doesn’t seem that vital to pay attention, but halfway through the act, a Yearly Kos volunteer stops by the conversational knot I’m in and shushes us. It’s the first sign of militancy and while they may not be reaching for the bayonets, the audience stomps and hoots when Moulitsas takes the stage. He smiles benignly and begins: “My name is Markos and I run a site called Daily Kos — maybe you’ve heard of it.”

They greet his sardonic understatement with appreciative howls. The speech starts with a warm celebration of the site’s achievements (including the somewhat dubious claim that Jon Tester owes his primary Senate victory in Montana to them and not to his opponent’s zipper problem) and then becomes self-congratulatory, boasting about the insurgent primary challenge to Joe Lieberman, where the incumbent now leads by only 55-40. The message of these triumphs? That the “riffraff” has triumphed over the elite. It’s all very empowering, though the speech’s crescendo is about how the liberal blogosphere propelled Stephen Colbert’s White House Correspondents’ dinner speech into the No. 1 spot on iTunes. As wins go, it seems symbolic at best. But what a symbol! The mainstream media is obsolete! “We don’t need them!” “We can now choose for ourselves the media we consume!” The air, which had been merely charged, positively crackles. A gaggle of mainstream media reporters in the back grows nervous. “Are you worried they’re going to blog us?” I ask someone. He replies, “I’m worried they’re going to lynch us.”

Moulitsas winds up his speech with an indictment of both the media elite and the political elite. “People power is taking the country by storm” because they “have failed us.” That may be true, but the political elite, at least, wants to make it up to them. Or at least buy them a drink. After Moulitsas wraps up, people tumble across town to the Hard Rock Café casino, where Wesley Clark hosts a beer-and-wine open bar while a montage of suspiciously candidate-like poses plays on televisions around the room. Friday night, former Virginia governor and potential 2008 contender Mark Warner is pouring the booze. New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, also a rumored presidential possibility, plies them with a breakfast of stale pastries — a poor offering, perhaps, but he’s also on a Yearly Kos panel. As is Clark.

Senator Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat, gives a keynote speech, then schmoozes in the blogger media room. She fields their questions gamely though at times she sounds less like she’s talking to anything remotely like the press than she is talking to a group of possibly hostile foreign nationals. “You people,” she says a lot. “That’s how you can help,” she asserts several times, though she doesn’t seem positive about it. Richardson and Clark talk to their audiences in the same cautiously flattering way, making self-deprecating but pat references to how old and out of touch they are with this new generation — remarks that were clearly thought up long before they walked into the room, which is filled with plenty of gray hairs and laugh lines. Richardson ventures into an odd sidebar about how former Dallas star Victoria Principal was the first person to purchase a ticket for New Mexico’s private space port; he asks if people get the “Dallas” reference, saying, “I’m not that old.” A blogger harrumphs: “We’re not that young.”

Everyone knows that the attendance at Yearly Kos by so many traditional politicians (we’re also going to be treated to speeches by Tom Vilsack, Howard Dean and Harry Reid) assures bloggers’ place in the political universe. Shortly before Moulitsas’s speech, Joe Trippi gropes for the right metaphor, comparing politicians’ courting of this nascent movement to the presidential primaries: “No one wants to skip Iowa.” Yet the politicians especially seem to be figuring it out as they go along — fear of missing the boat outweighs doubt about its final destination. Clark gives his speech on American innovation to a well-attended science panel flanked by bloggers whose name recognition is high in this room and nowhere else. One of them is wearing a colorful, flowered hat. Clark's handler leans over: “Ten days ago, he had a street named after him in Kosovo, today he’s on a science panel with a man named ‘Darksyde’ and a woman in a bonnet. That is democracy.”

Tomorrow: Mark Warner funds the blogosphere blow-out, Arianna graces us with her presence. Also, blogs.