The Netroots Question

By Josh Feit February 25, 2009

Stranger writer Eli Sanders has a long think piece in The American Prospect that broaches a touchy subject for local progressives: Did Darcy Burner's losing campaign to unseat U.S. Rep Dave Reichert (R-8, WA) prove that, despite their grandiose claims, the netroots actually aren't a potent electoral force.

Sanders concludes:
...Politics is about the exercise of raw power. But the Burner campaign's successes and failures prove that bloggers don't have it in sufficient quantities -- not yet, anyway -- to behave as if they can dictate the terms of the debate and to condescend, you-got-punk'd-style, to those they need to persuade. They misunderstand human nature if they think that people will be persuaded after a good talking-down to.

Sanders, in fact, reports that Burner's netroots support was a liability in the 8th District where her virtual (and cyberbagging) support from dweeby intellectuals was used against her (think Howard Dean's army of out-of-state supporters going door to door in Iowa in 2004 in the lead up to his implosion.)

Eli's article is behind a firewall at  The American Prospect, but I've linked a big section of it below the jump where Sanders interviews Burner and asks her to address the netroots question.

Eli writes: 

So what went wrong? Burner told me it wasn't that she was too close to
the liberal blogosphere, though that's somewhat debatable. Advisers
had urged her to be wary of being perceived as the netroots candidate,
and Republicans saw it as a vulnerability, repeatedly pushing the idea
that Burner was a willing tool of radical leftist online elites from
out of state who were meddling in Washington state politics. In the
comment thread of a Washington conservative blog in October 2008, a
comment attributed to Reichert campaign manager Mike Shields read: "If
burner [sic] wins, she will prove that even a candidate with no
experience, no real connection to her community, who is to the left of
the local voters, can raise enough money from national activists that
they can elect someone in YOUR local district. This will embolden them
to futher [sic] this model nationally."

Against Burner, Reichert ran toward the center. He distanced himself
from George W. Bush, touted his (limited) bipartisan accomplishments,
and plugged his efforts to help restructure the Federal Emergency
Management Agency after its failures during Hurricane Katrina. Burner,
on the other hand, had a sort of dual persona: even-keeled anti-war
Democrat in public, fiery populist online. Occasionally, parts of her
personality that her campaign probably wanted to confine to the Web --
as if such a thing were possible -- migrated offline. At one point
during the campaign, she told Seattle magazine that Reichert was a
"white-haired warmonger." In July 2008, when her house burned to the
ground early one morning due to faulty wiring (no one was injured, but
the house was a total loss), Burner was photographed wearing a gray T-
shirt with white letters reading: . That's Web-code-speak for
"end war," and probably not a slogan many of her district's swing
voters were wearing on their chest at the time. (For the netroots,
however, the photograph became another "She's one of us!" moment.)

Ultimately, Republicans were able to successfully do with the "Burner
is a netroots radical" meme what liberal bloggers had been able to
with the Responsible Plan. That is, they got the mainstream media to
notice and start chattering. Time magazine asked of the Burner-
Reichert race: "Will the Netroots Sink a Microsoft Dem?" The Seattle
Times led off Burner's candidate profile by juxtaposing her 8th
District image and her netroots persona: "While her campaign talks up
her blue-collar roots and family life, online activists from all over
the country see her as one of their own."

"We gave the right an easy target against Darcy," McCarter of DailyKos
admits. "That's a tough position to be in because we're not going to
shut up, we're not going to go away. But, yeah, when we take on an
issue for our agenda, we can become a liability."

Additionally, the very traits that made Burner so popular among
liberal netizens probably were not so endearing to the blue-collar
residents of the southern part of the 8th District (an area that is
quite close to the Fort Lewis Army base and therefore also has a
significant number of military families). Throughout the campaign,
this area in particular provided a very strong reminder that offline
politics is not the virtual meritocracy that members of the netroots
have created. "It's a symptom of their idealism that they can pick
someone like Darcy Burner, who's never run for office, and turn her
into a first-tier congressional candidate," a Democratic consultant
told me.

When I asked Burner whether being the type of liberal that online
activists love made her too far left for her district, she replied by
setting up questions she felt more comfortable answering: "Am I a
populist? Yes. Do I think that this country needs populists right now?
Yes. Do I think Reichert's a populist? Not at all."

This is, of course, a bit of a dodge. For starters, "populist" can
mean a lot of things. Burner seems to use the word to signal to the
netroots that she's in favor of its "people-powered politics" and to
signal to voters than she's on the side of working people. The thing
is, in swing districts such as the 8th, "populist" is not always a
winning rallying cry and can, in some quarters, mean something closer
to "dangerous radical." I asked Burner: Does the 8th District really
want a populist?

"I think it's mixed," she said -- a fact that to some would call for
the kind of campaign the netroots might deride as overly safe and
politically milquetoast. "But I think this country needs more
populists," she continued. "And I think this district needs more
populists. And, by the way, this district could probably use someone
in Congress who understands something about technology, which is the
backbone of the economy locally." She sounded a little exasperated, a
little too close to the caricature of her as an arrogant geek elite.
Perhaps trying to take the edge off, she added with a smirk, "I'm just

I could imagine lefty blog commenters around the country cheering at
the populism -- however vaguely defined -- and the techno-boosterism.
I could also imagine cautious political consultants wincing.
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