Hillary Clinton may be the best-established of the Democratic presidential candidates. But put her in a room with a bunch of nonconformist bloggers and liberal activists with handles like “OrangeClouds115” and “Cojazz,” and she’s a rank outsider.
It’s not a position she enjoys.
“You know, I’ve been waiting for this,” Mrs. Clinton said when some members of the restless audience jeered her defense of Washington lobbyists at this weekend’s YearlyKos convention. “This gives us a real sense of reality of my being here.”
What Mrs. Clinton’s uncharacteristic outburst during the Aug. 4 Democratic debate in Chicago revealed—or more accurately, reinforced—is that she is very much the Democratic Party’s establishment candidate.
Her closest rival, Barack Obama, says “turn the page” more than an English tutor, and John Edwards rarely gets through a sentence without throwing red meat to the mostly young, mostly pissed-off liberal blogosphere by shouting something about “big change.”
Not that Mrs. Clinton, who holds a commanding position among more traditional Democratic voters, is quite ready to cede any turf.
In June 2006, she took the conspicuous step of hiring a popular blogger, Peter Daou, to work for her campaign. More recently, she dispatched crack spokesman Howard Wolfson to appear on conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News to defend blogger (and convention namesake) Markos Moulitsas against charges of extremism.
In a talk with convention-goers before the debate, Mrs. Clinton was effusive in her admiration for a group she embraced as progressive fellow travelers. “I’m going to start by saying something a little unexpected, and that is ‘thank you,’” Mrs. Clinton said to a room full of about 270 people on Saturday. She said that the critical nature of many blogs “makes those who run for and hold office a little sharper.”
Mrs. Clinton used the specters of the Bush administration and Mr. O’Reilly (many convention-goers wore “Annoy O’Reilly” buttons) as a rallying point. She gave long, intricate answers to questions about education and welfare, effectively staving off more prickly questions from the firmly antiwar crowd about her belated support of deadlines for troop withdrawal. She said that the liberal blogs were just the right antidote to the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Judging from the applause and generally warm reception—“I love your hair, by the way,” said one questioner—Mrs. Clinton did well.
But as Mrs. Clinton’s debate performance showed, her diplomacy towards the Net-based portion of the party only goes so far. Even as the conventioneers bemoaned the “gatekeepers” in the slothful and cowardly press—panel discussions included “Blogs and the MSM: From Clash to Civilization,” and “Blogs and Journalism: The New News?”—Mrs. Clinton seemed to make it clear that her feelings toward the new media are about as warm as her feelings toward the old.
And the sentiment is clearly mutual.
But even before Saturday’s debate, it was also clear walking around the halls of the vast McCormick Place Convention Center that this wasn’t exactly Mrs. Clinton’s crowd.
On Friday, Adam Lambert (Clammyc) and David Dayen (DDay) chatted in the main lobby wearing buttons with a slash through the words “Clinton Dynasty.” They said that they looked forward to hearing what Mrs. Clinton had to say for herself, though they doubted she had much in common with the convention-goers.
“She exists in a sort of defensive crouch,” Mr. Dayen said. “The blogosphere and the Netroots has risen out of a frustration for that kind of politics. We’re confident. We want somebody who is proud of their ideals.”
Otherwise, Mr. Lambert added, “you end up in too much of a triangulation situation.”
The bloggers’ name tags (Jotter, WanderIndiana, Fresh Snaps) hung from bright orange straps around their necks. Between seminars, they checked out the bulletin board (notices included “Blogger Required, Inquire Within,” “Draft Gore” and “Meet Netroots Superstar Eric Massa”) and browsed dozens of booths. One sold “Goodbye George” calendars, which counted down the days until President Bush leaves office. Others offered information about the groups “Drinking Liberally” and “Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.”
The Clinton campaign was one of only two (the other was Bill Richardson’s) to set up shop in the room, and so many people asked whether she would be attending the conference that the two young Clinton volunteers put up a sign announcing that yes, Hillary would be coming at noon the next day.
Jill Richardson (OrangeClouds115) sold T-shirts that read “Vegetables of Mass Destruction” and “Every Time You Shop at Wal-Mart God Kills a Kitten” and talked about the benefits of being a “locavore.” (“The payoff comes in freshness and flavor,” she said.)
Around her, bloggers picked at tuna or vegan box lunches, sipped from Sprites and Cokes and tapped on their laptop keyboards. In the main ballroom, the labor leader Andy Stein talked about how the 2008 Olympics “are going to be like Sputnik.”
Up two flights of escalators, pollster Stanley Greenberg, MoveOn.org Washington director Tom Mattzie, and Mark Blumenthal, the editor and publisher of Pollster.com, participated in a panel called Public Opinion Matters: Iraq and the 2008 Campaign. A questioner asked how real Hillary’s lead was.
“It’s an interesting question,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “And I think it is the question.”
On Saturday morning, there was a rush on the last remaining yellow bracelets that would gain them entrance into room 105c, where Mrs. Clinton was scheduled to make remarks. By noon, a steady flow of traffic filled the halls leading to the room. Along the way, bloggers plugged their laptops into every available electric outlet and sat against the walls like glowing potted plants. Bracelet-wearing audience members passed through a security check and took their seats. Dozens of reporters, including correspondents of The Washington Post, Time, and at least three correspondents from The New York Times perched in a horseshoe around them.
Mr. Wolfson walked in and made light of Mrs. Clinton’s poor showing in a poll of Daily Kos readers.
“We’re at 9 percent and rising—we’re hoping to get into the double digits,” Mr. Wolfson said, adding, “This is a great group of progressive activists.”
After a short introduction by Mr. Daou—“She wants to meet you and get to know you as well,” he said—Mrs. Clinton took the microphone, which promptly went dead.
She jokingly whispered, “Vast right-wing conspiracy.”
After 45 minutes of speech and a question-and-answer session, Mrs. Clinton wrapped up with the thinly veiled exhortation to “reach out to people who don’t already agree with us.”
It all went smoothly enough until the debate.
Mr. Edwards, as is his tendency, challenged the Democratic candidates to promise not to take “a dime from Washington lobbyists.”
Mrs. Clinton did not accept his proposal.
“Well, I think it’s a position that John certainly has taken,” she said, prompting some guffaws. “Well, I have to say that I don’t, I don’t think based on my 35 years in fighting for what I believe in, anybody seriously believes I’m going to be influenced by a lobbyist or a particular interest group.”
After that, things went south.
Outside the ballroom doors after the debate, Mr. Daou remained, mounting a defense of Mrs. Clinton to a skeptical-looking blogger with long hair.
Asked immediately afterward by an old-media reporter how he thought her appearance at the convention had gone, he said, “From my perspective, the senator had a good time and talked about a lot of important things. A progressive community serves as a natural audience for her in the sense she’s saying, ‘Look, you guys are using the Internet and using technology to do it, and it’s just a great thing.’ And she’s embracing it. She has been reaching out and she will continue to do so.”