In a faded casino in Las Vegas, venerable New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd zeroed in on a man she'd decided would be the topic of her next column.
The man, a baby-faced political blogger with darting brown eyes, faced a volley of questions from Dowd: What future did he envision for old-school journos like herself? What did he make of the fact that after only two years of blogging at Wonkette, Ana Marie Cox had just landed a gig at Time magazine?
As the man answered each question, Dowd's assistant took notes on a laptop.
Once satisfied, Dowd whisked down the garishly carpeted hallways and disappeared into a crowd of people wearing orange lanyards marked "YearlyKos Convention."
A short time later, when another reporter asked what it had been like to be the singular focus of the best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize winner's attention, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga was blunt in his assessment.
"Maureen Dowd," Moulitsas said, "is an insecure, catty bitch."
Moulitsas is not the type to mince words. It is his army nickname, "Kos," that is splashed across every balloon, tote bag, and lanyard at the conference, which had grown out of his influential political blog, www.DailyKos.com.
His fellow bloggers weren't there to kiss the ring of old-media celebs; they were checking nametags for the internet handles of fellow Daily Kos comrades: "pontificator," "Meteor Blades," "mcjoan," "dday." Until today, even their most ardent fans had no idea what they looked like.
Despite the crappy hotel, the fact that few of the workshop presenters had ever spoken in public, and the horror of learning at the last minute that the Riviera Casino had no Wi-fi, the event had drawn over 1,000 bloggers from all over the country. The media and politicians followed—Harry Reid delivered the keynote, and by day three, 147 journalists roamed the halls with cameras and microphones.
So it stood to reason that Moulitsas felt ballsy enough to spark a feud with one of the biggest names in the building. It was also his calling card: Many of the Daily Kos regulars who shook his hand for the first time that weekend agreed that "kos" the internet entity and Moulitsas the man were one and the same: acerbic, irascible, unapologetic.
Even five years later, as the sixth annual conference is set to descend on the Minneapolis Convention Center on June 16, Moulitsas expresses few regrets. He should not, he concedes, have called Dowd a "bitch." But, he adds, "she was catty and definitely insecure."
Her problem, Moulitsas argues, and the problem of many of the mainstream media writers who peeked behind the blogosphere curtain for the first time in that Las Vegas casino, was that she was too shortsighted to see the big picture.
"She's threatened," Moulitsas says. "She was trying figure out what her job security was. The political reporters, this was them trying to grapple with how credible and how serious this movement was."
IN 1999, THE YEAR President Bill Clinton faced impeachment, a computer programmer used the word "blog" as a verb for the first time.
It was also the same year that LiveJournal and Blogger went online, giving people with no understanding of computer code the opportunity to create their own online diaries.
In 2001, a week before al Qaeda operatives flew two planes into the Twin Towers, another blogging platform, called Movable Type, flickered to life.
In the ensuing chaos after 9/11, criticism of President Bush fell to a hushed whisper within mainstream media. Meanwhile, a small ecosystem of bloggers began to form online, where they confessed their misgivings about the impending war and general mistrust for the Republicans running the country.
A few of those blogs rose to prominence at a time when a couple of thousand hits per post was still considered a huge success: Talking Points Memo, MyDD, and Atrios. Anonymity was, at the time, a valued commodity.
"It was a time when being vocally liberal tended to really anger people," says Duncan Black, a.k.a. Atrios. "Part of the reason for being anonymous was minor concern for safety."
As the blogs increased in popularity, their influence began to carry over to real life. They began to break news themselves. They raised massive sums for Democratic candidates. They selected their own candidates.
As the bloggers became increasingly organized, the new kingmakers sought to push their progressive agenda—to elect, as Moulitsas likes to say, "more and better Democrats." This special brand of loosely organized, internet-centric activism became known as the "netroots."
"They challenged the party with not only new ways of doing politics but new people demanding participation in politics," says Jay Rosen, a professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. "It altered the number of people you have to pay attention to, and that was a very important thing. Now we take it for granted."
WHEN MOULITSAS WAS A nine-year-old boy living in civil war-torn El Salvador, his parents received a strange envelope in the mail.
Inside were photos of Moulitsas and his brother being driven to their grandmother's, and getting on and off the school bus.
It was a message to the right-sympathizing family from the communist guerilla fighters: We can take your children at any time.
Terrified, the family fled to Chicago in 1980.
At 17, Moulitsas announced that he was joining the Army. It could hardly have come as more of a shock to his parents, mostly because they'd assumed he was headed for college. There was also the matter of his slight physique: Moulitsas's growth had stunted at 5-foot-6 and he weighed a scant 111 pounds.
With his family's reluctant permission, Moulitsas shipped out to boot camp and trained as an artillery specialist. By the time he returned from his station in Bamberg, Germany, in 1991, he had adopted the nickname "Kos," put on 30 pounds, and become a Democrat.
"The Army taught me the very values that make us progressives—community, opportunity, and investment in people and the future," Moulitsas wrote of his political awakening. "I was increasingly disillusioned by the selfishness, lack of community, and sense of entitlement inherent in the Republican philosophy."
Upon his return, Moulitsas took advantage of the G.I. Bill to get his bachelor's in political science, journalism, and philosophy, then earned his law degree at Boston University. After graduation, he went west to Berkeley, hoping to make his fortune in the dot-com gold rush. But the company that hired him went belly up, and Moulitsas had to take a boring job at a web development firm.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Moulitsas found himself increasingly frustrated with coverage of the war. He went online to find likeminded individuals and stumbled across MyDD, or "My Due Diligence," a blog founded in 2001 by Jerome Armstrong. For increasing chunks of time during his workday, Moulitsas began poring through MyDD posts against the buildup to the war and, inspired, he built his own site on Movable Type with about $300, and—in what he felt was just a working title until he could think of something more creative—called it "Daily Kos."
"I am a progressive," he wrote in his first entry, dated May 26, 2002. "I am a liberal. I make no apologies."
ON MARCH 31, 2004, four security guards for the military contractor Blackwater were escorting empty flatbed trucks for an American catering company through the city of Fallujah. They were unfamiliar with this part of the city, so instead of taking a faster, safer route through the outskirts, they stumbled into the hostile, Sunni-controlled center.
While the convoy was stopped in traffic, a group of insurgents who'd been watching descended. At point-blank range, they executed the four contractors from behind, then dragged the bodies from the trucks.
In a wild and gruesome celebration, the insurgents hacked at the bodies, dragged them through the streets, and lit them on fire.
Two of the bodies—one missing most of its limbs, the other a mangled mess of bone and gristle with a crater for a face—were strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River.
The next day, the images landed on American shores, and discussion broke out on the Daily Kos site as to whether it was appropriate to broadcast the pictures.
It wasn't the entry itself that put the entire Daily Kos community under fire, but the first comment, which was written by Moulitsas.
"Let the people see what war is like," he wrote. "I feel nothing over the death of merceneries. [SIC] They aren't in Iraq because of orders, or because they are trying to help the people make Iraq a better place. They are there to wage war for profit. Screw them."
The backlash was swift and severe, first from within the Daily Kos community itself, then from outside observers and Republicans. Suddenly, Moulitsas's problem was not that his voice wasn't being heard. It was that it was being amplified too loudly.
Almost exactly two years after the site was founded, Daily Kos was receiving 200,000 page views a day. As debate raged over the Iraq War, Moulitsas's site quickly became the most popular gathering place for liberal commentary.
As the site's traffic exploded, Moulitsas began inviting commenters whose writing he admired to guest post on weekends. In October of 2003, he took it a step further by moving the site to a new platform that allowed others to host their own blogs on his site. Moulitsas called them "diaries," and the regular commenters quickly began registering. What blossomed was an intensely passionate fact-checking community with a laserlike focus on taking down the Bush administration.
"I think I didn't sign up for about six months because I was just too intimidated to comment," recalls Susan Gardner, then a restless stay-at-home mom who posted under the name SusanG. "My first diary I think I got hammered by the community."
Diarists made names for themselves by getting recommended by other users, or by breaking news. Gardner's moment came when she posted about a mysterious White House press corps member tossing softballs to Bush. By aggregating information from subsequent comments, she was able to show that the man, Jeff Gannon, was a right-wing plant and former male escort.
"People went crazy in the comments," she says. "The research started driving the story into the traditional media."
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.
"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.
In the wake of the book release, Moulitsas deputized another class of featured diarists to take over regular posting duties on Daily Kos, including Susan Gardner.
YearlyKos also arrived for the first time that year after two years of planning. It was in large part thanks to the efforts of Gina Cooper, a Tennessee high school science teacher who'd joined Daily Kos under the simple name "gina." A casual suggestion that the diarists get together for beers had exploded into the notion of a full-blown conference, and the so-called Kossacks came out in force. Cooper became the de facto spokesperson.
"I'm really kind of a shy person. I had managed my entire life to never be on a video camera," says Cooper. "I just thought, 'Okay, well, this is the job I'm doing. So the job I'm doing requires I be on CSPAN.'"
Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner threw an infamously lush party at a rooftop lounge overlooking the strip, where Elvis and Blues Brothers impersonators mingled with guests sipping "Kos-mopolitans." Warner was toying with a presidential run, but his effort to please the netroots had seemingly gone too far. The bloggers who initially piled into the skyward elevators in giddy anticipation recoiled at the vodka-chilling sculptures and chocolate fondue fountain.
"We were all looking at each other, like, 'What exactly is going on? Are they trying to co-opt us?'" remembers David Dayen, a FireDogLake reporter who once blogged under "dday." "Now you have these politicians just treating you like you're an interest group."
But when Moulitsas took the stage for his keynote, the tone was decidedly triumphant.
"The political elite—from both parties—failed us," Moulitsas told the packed ballroom. "Republicans because they can't govern, and Democrats because they can't get elected.
"So now it's our turn."
BEFORE ELECTION NIGHT IN 2008, Moulitsas went out and bought several bottles of expensive Dom Pérignon.
"I don't like champagne and I thought maybe it was because I always drink the crappy stuff," Moulitsas explains sheepishly.
He put the bottles on ice, set up several monitors throughout his home, and poured himself a glass of bubbly as friends and family began arriving to watch the returns.
"It was a big celebration," Moulitsas says.
The next day, as the liberal blogosphere awakened with a throbbing hangover, something else was happening that they hadn't anticipated. Their in-boxes, after the initial congratulatory emails and thank-yous from the Obama campaign, went dark. There was an eerie sense of silence.
By this time, Daily Kos had received its one-billionth page view and Moulitsas had a paid staff running the site. He was also writing columns for Newsweek and the Hill, and making semi-regular appearances on network news as a political commentator. Several other prominent site members had spun off their own blogs from Daily Kos, or been hired by mainstream news sites. The power of the blog had become accepted wisdom, and the Obama campaign had used the relationship fruitfully, raising money and organizing young people all over the country on Facebook and Twitter. Obama had finished, many observers said, what Dean had started.
But in their frenzied support for Obama, the rest of the netroots' goals had atrophied. Once their presidential candidate was in office, the community was left with idle hands.
"I got a few emails about buying a Barack Obama hat or scarf," Cooper says of the election aftermath. "We had a chance to come together, and people wanted to come together. That was a missed opportunity."
They were on their own again as they faced a daunting new task: to switch gears from electing to legislating—an infinitely murkier process.
One of Moulitsas's personal goals was to push through health care reform—particularly the public option and a lowering of the Medicare admittance age. But as the Obama administration set to work, the concessions to the right piled up. The Democratic majority caved to threats of filibustering. Chunks of the reform fell by the wayside—first the public option, then the Medicare age. Moulitsas entered a deep funk.
"It was like, 'Fuck it. Why the hell did we waste all this time and money fighting for these assholes?'" Moulitsas recalls. "Psychologically, I was beaten."
As the 2010 elections arrived, the Tea Party managed to do what the netroots had always strived to do: elect harder line politicians and cast out the centrists. The netroots have been reeling ever since.
"The biggest change was, of course, coming out of the opposition," says Joan McCarter, Daily Kos's senior policy editor. "We are working for more progressive Democrats. I think that's still evolving. It probably always will be."
McCarter frets that at some point she'll have to move to D.C.—she currently lives in Idaho to be close to family. It would be the ultimate step inside the Beltway.
"I would rather not necessarily be socializing with all these people that I'm writing about," she muses. "I think being an outsider is really valuable."
THE WIND WHIPS AROUND Moulitsas as he stands outside of the first official offices of Daily Kos in Berkeley and mulls what he sees as the final defeat of Joe Lieberman, five years in the making. Though Liberman had managed to defeat Lamont in the '06 race, the netroots had made the victory hard-fought and very expensive.
In January, the 22-year congressional veteran announced he would not seek reelection. Moulitsas is all too happy to accept responsibility.
"I was really kind of sad about it because I was ready to finish the deal," Moulitsas gloats. "Reading the speech and seeing some of the coverage of it—that was not a retirement speech. That was actually a concession speech."
After the wrenching backward step of the 2010 Tea Party victories, Moulitsas predicts that 2012 will be a banner year for liberals. Not only does the election happen to fall on Daily Kos's 10th anniversary, but with Tea Partiers and conservatives going after Medicare and organized labor, a formidable netroots backlash has already begun brewing. Much of the networking and strategizing will happen in the coming days at this year's conference, now called Netroots Nation, in Minneapolis.
As for Daily Kos itself, Moulitsas is fixing up the offices, moving in furniture, and painting the walls orange. Soon he'll have a new tech team and a war room in which to meet with allies. In March, he poached alternative cartoonist Tom Tomorrow from Salon, and has the This Modern World artist building a new comic section on Daily Kos. The operation, with a growing staff of 15, is starting to sound suspiciously like a real newsroom.
Today Moulitsas concedes that the movement doesn't have the same frenzied sense of newness that was so evident in the casino in 2006. But that was inevitable with success.
"My line used to be, 'We're on the right side of the American public opinion on every single issue except gay marriage,' and even that's no longer true: The latest Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans support gay marriage," Moulitsas says. "We need to push those advantages, and that's what we're going to be looking for: Democrats who are unapologetic progressives, who aren't afraid of what Bill O'Reilly's going to say."