Daily Kos: Markos Moulitsas's website changed politics

Netroots Nation comes to Minneapolis

  

MEANWHILE, HOWARD DEAN'S PRESIDENTIAL campaign was slowly building momentum.

Just days before the first bombs fell in Iraq, Dean had stood before the California State Democratic Convention and declared he opposed the war. He was the dream candidate for the nascent netroots community.

Chris Bowers joined Daily Kos as its campaign director; Gina Cooper's work on the YearlyKos convention led to a second career as a new media political consultant
courtesy of Chris Bowers and Kos Media
Chris Bowers joined Daily Kos as its campaign director; Gina Cooper's work on the YearlyKos convention led to a second career as a new media political consultant

"They were sort of evolving at the same time the campaign was," Dean recalls. "At that time there was a group of young people—and Markos was one of them—who were looking for real change."

Jerome Armstrong began stumping hard for Dean on MyDD. The campaign organized rallies on MeetUp.com that spilled into the street—Dean himself couldn't get into some of them. Dean's war chest grew with small donations from the web. By the end of his campaign, the netroots accounted for $25 million of Dean's total $50 million.

The netroots were further legitimized once Dean's manager hired both Moulitsas and Armstrong as technical consultants, though not everyone on the site approved of the new establishment salaries.

"I never claimed to be free of bias," Moulitsas wrote on Daily Kos at the time. "I have to make my living, and if I can do so helping Democrats win elections, I can't imagine anything more exciting and fulfilling."

Although Dean was the netroots' first choice, signs of trouble emerged in early 2004, when the Iowa Democratic caucuses handed him a disappointing third-place finish. In his subsequent speech, a cold-addled Dean unleashed his now-infamous "Dean Scream," which made him look strange and unhinged. The clip went viral—the internet giveth and the internet taketh away. Party-line Democrats thought he was too radical. The safer bet, they decided, was Senator John Kerry.

Though disappointed, the netroots and Moulitsas threw their support behind the Kerry campaign.

But after Moulitsas's "mercenaries" remark, a chasm developed between the site and the Democratic Party. Several prominent Democratic candidates pulled their ads. Kerry's campaign removed the link to Daily Kos from its website, saying the comment was an "unacceptable statement about the death of Americans made by Daily Kos." Right-wing bloggers seized on the controversy with delight.

"Markos can really be unfiltered sometimes—that's part of the appeal of the site," explains Gardner. "He is hammered all the time, personally."

On election night 2004, Bush beat Kerry to claim his second presidential term. Moulitsas says he spent much of the following day manning a "suicide hotline" on his site.

But even at that dark hour, seemingly rejected by the very people he was trying to help, Moulitsas took away an important lesson.

"That's the first time I realized that I was having enough of an impact that they were gunning for me," Moulitsas says. "I saw that as a very positive moment."

  

IN A SHERATON HOTEL in Connecticut, a man named Ned Lamont ascended the stage in front of a frenzied audience chanting his name.

For a moment, he looked a little dazed. Eight months ago, he'd barely been recognized. Now the room pulsed with energy as he waded through the crowd, past Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, to announce he had just won the Democratic primary, beating Washington, D.C., institution Sen. Joe Lieberman.

"Ned! Ned! Ned!" the crowd roared.

Flakes of white confetti stuck in Lamont's hair as he approached the mic, looking a bit like a man who'd wandered into the wrong party.

"Sorry to keep you waiting here so long," he started. "Drinks on me!"

The crowd roared back in approval.

Watching from the audience was blogger Chris Bowers, an editor at MyDD who'd been feverishly blogging the Connecticut primary and the rise of Lamont. All the big names were represented in the room: FireDogLake, MoveOn.org, and, of course, Daily Kos. Bowers, a wavy-haired, bespectacled 32-year-old, was as giddy as a teenager at a rock concert as Lamont pointedly thanked the netroots.

"It was a tremendous, shining moment," Bowers recalls.

At the start of the election, the netroots had officially declared war on Lieberman. They wanted him exiled because of his unflinching fealty to Bush. They were tired of centrist Democrats who kowtowed. And they wanted to take a big one down.

Moulitsas himself was recruited by Bill Hillsman, the Minneapolis advertising wiz who worked his magic for Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura, to appear in a commercial promoting Lamont.

In the ad, Lamont sat in a mundane-looking Connecticut living room delivering his talking points when Moulitsas and a crowd of cheering supporters crash into the scene.

"Ned, we saw the commercial we love it," Moulitsas says in the spot. "Everyone is here ready to go."

To the uninformed viewer, Moulitsas was just an excited young activist in plaid flannel, but to anyone in the know it was like a secret sign that said: "The netroots approve of this message."

"We actually courted bloggers—we treated bloggers like they were actual press people," Hillsman says of the Lamont campaign. "That paid off."

Hillsman wasn't the only one ready to embrace the netroots in 2006. Moulitsas had now been working on the blog full-time for two years, making a healthy living from ad revenue alone. The advertisers who'd left in 2004 were replaced by candidates who weren't afraid of Moulitsas's brash web presence. Shortly after the mercenary incident, he was offered a book deal and authored Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics with Jerome Armstrong. On one leg of the subsequent book tour, Moulitsas was actually chauffeured by New York Times political reporter Matt Bai.

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