SOMEWHERE ON A STREET NEAR YOU, one or both of our major political parties will soon have a ward committee meeting. Ward committee members are the people in your community who think an ideal weekend is spent stuffing envelopes or manning a phone bank on behalf of their pet cause. They are noble people; they are also a little strange.
The people who make up ward committees are passionate about politics. Really, really passionate. It is the parties' good fortune that their ward committee meetings are held in private living rooms across the country and not televised on C-SPAN. Indeed, for the vast majority of Americans who maintain a benign indifference to politics, watching their fellow citizens angrily rant for 90 minutes on the sorry state of the nation before finally repairing for coffee and cookies would be depressing and frightening.
In many ways, the Daily Kos is like a gigantic virtual ward committee. Like a ward committee, the Kos community is able to raise funds for candidates and causes it deems worthy. Also like a ward committee, the Kos community has energy; politicians know a favorable nod from Kos proprietor Markos Moulitsas or one of his co-bloggers can generate not just cash but volunteers, too. Problematically, though, the Daily Kos also has many of the negative characteristics of a Ward committee: The excessive passion, the intemperate remarks, and the strange world views of people who obsess about politics.
BUT AS A WARD COMMITTEE ON HYPER-STEROIDS, the Daily Kos has become enough of a player that it's not just selectmen and aspiring state senators who curry the community's favor. United States Senator Barbara Boxer has sent the community not one but two fawning mash notes in the past month to better ingratiate herself with the Kossacks (as they call themselves). As Moulitsas has crowed many times on his website, the Daily Kos has real power, power that is evidenced by the fact that a national figure such as Boxer will stop by repeatedly to pay her respects.
But unlike an actual ward committee which has its meetings (mercifully) in private, the Daily Kos convenes around the clock on the Internet, where the whole world can monitor its goings on.
Last week Kos "diarist" (the Kos Community has numerous diaries which function as blogs within the blog) "Regeneration Man" offered a lengthy post which purported to prove that Jeff Gannon/James Guckert was the missing link in the Rathergate scandal. As Regeneration Man put it, "It now appears that Jeff Gannon could be the thread that unravels the real story behind the TANG/CBS forgeries. I have put together a case here that if looked at carefully by the blogosphere would show that the TANG forgeries were made by the White House . . . The main point of this diary is that Gannon was being used by the White House to ID Mapes to send the news media in a certain direction on that story . . . In all instances, it's Gannon who is given hot information to help orchestrate the story."
It will come as little surprise to those who follow the workings of the left that Regeneration Man ultimately concluded that Karl Rove was behind the whole thing. His post almost instantly became the subjectof non-stop ridicule in the saner precincts of the blogosphere.
And yet, in perhaps the clearest sign to date of the Kos community's growing strength, this past weekend Democratic Congressman Maurice Hinchey echoed Regeneration Man's suspicion, saying: "They set up Dan Rather. Now, I mean, I have my own beliefs about how that happened: it originated with Karl Rove, in my belief, in the White House."
NOT ALL of the commentary on Daily Kos is ridiculous conspiracy mongering. Many of the commenters are sophisticated political observers who offer keen insights. The discussion that followed a recent Moulitsas post disparaging the Democrats' professional "strategists" is instructive in this regard. Moulitsas's item was thought provoking and worthwhile--he posited that the Democratic party's strengths are in its grassroots (as personified by his website) and that the establishment strategists' efforts to move away from those grass roots have been disastrous. The conversation that followed the "strategists" post was similarly mature.
But other conversations on the Daily Kos are less edifying. A thread that lamented the suicide of Hunter Thompson is illustrative in this regard. The original post (written by a Kos contributor, not by Moulitsas) began ominously: "It scares me. Speculation isn't appropriate, but what did he know that we don't? I mean, this guy was one crazy mother-f***ker. Absolutely fearless." Although the author didn't provide further elaboration, it seemed clear he was hinting that Thompson had been eliminated by the Bush administration.
While the comments that followed rejected such speculation, a consensus developed that President Bush was nonetheless to blame for Thompson's demise. Opined one Kossack: "His blood is also on Bush's hands. Probably just couldn't accept life with four more years of Bush. Guess he chose to take the easy way out." Other commenters were slightly more reasonable. Recalling an acquaintance who had committed suicide shortly after the 2000 election, another Kossack conceded, "I doubt he killed himself over Junior Caligula's ascencion [sic] to the throne . . . but it no doubt was on the background."
MARKOS MOULITSAS'S CHALLENGE will be to keep the Daily Kos respectable enough that politicians remain eager to be seen in his company. This challenge is not insignificant; the Daily Kos is viewed hundreds of thousands of times a day by a great many people and much of the goings on there are likely unattractive to the general public.
Few politicians have strong inhibitions about going negative on their opponent, but most see a need to appear civil in their discourse. For instance, while President Bush might have been privately delighted by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth this past campaign season, he was loath to publicly embrace them. On the Daily Kos, civility is in chronically short supply.
Moulitsas (who declined to be interviewed for this story) has not been bashful about his ambitions: He wants to first empower the Democratic grassroots and then in turn empower a more reliably liberal Democratic party.
But his site's greatest asset is also its greatest potential liability. The Kos community's energy attracts politicians with the promise of money and volunteers. But that same energy also produces a surfeit of unseemly commentary on a recurring basis. If Moulitsas is unable or unwilling to exert a more forceful hand in harnessing that energy, he runs the risk that the political class will eschew his embrace.
Then again, perhaps Moulitsas is trying to usher a different kind of Democratic politician to the fore--the kind of politician who is unconstrained by the traditional urge to appear civil. Moulitsas has long been associated with Howard Dean and was instrumental in Dean's ascension to the DNC chairmanship. This ascension came only days after Dean proudly proclaimed that he "hated" Republicans.
If Moulitsas has his way, the Democratic party will allow its "inner ward committee" to be viewed by the world at large. Moulitsas is probably comfortable with this possibility--the Kos community shows the highest regard for the most passionately strident commentary and has little regard for common decorum. The Kossacks seem to believe that if they could just be heard by the entire country, the Democratic party's losing streak would come to an end.
And Custer probably thought that if he could just get the Indians to come out and fight him at Little Big Horn . . .
Dean Barnett writes about politics at soxblog.com under his online pseudonym James Frederick Dwight.