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YearlyKos: Presidential Politics and the Netroots Community

By Kevin Robinson in News on Aug 5, 2007 4:59PM

While most of the city was partying down at Lollapalooza this weekend, a different type of party was going on just a few blocks south of Grant Park: YearlyKos, the annual convention hosted by DailyKos, the netroots weblog started by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, and filled with content, news and views by a motley crew of bloggers from around the nation (including Dick Durbin!).

2007_8_yearlkos_1.JPGSaturday was a big day for the bloggers by the lake, with most of the day’s events revolving around the presidential election that is coming soon to a voting booth near you. While a morning "Meet the Leaders" panel, featuring Senator Harry Reid, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Chuck Schumer and Congressman Rahm Emanuel was cancelled "due to the people's business in Washington" (apparently the people's business is caving in on FISA), the show kept going at 9a.m. as scheduled, with workshops that ranged from the politics and policy of Hispanics and immigration to Volunteer Recruitment and Development. By noon it was time for a breakout session with NY Senator Hillary Clinton.

Starting off with a brief address to the packed room of bloggers and activists, she opened the floor up to questions. Like anytime that Hillary speaks, especially to voters, she comes off a lot like John Kerry with balls: nuanced in her response to questions, senatorial in the points of her plan to solve just about anything presented, while still taking potshots at the Bush administration. When asked about the war in Iraq, she starts a lengthy soliloquy on rule-of-law and habeas corpus, and talks about putting America on the road to shutting down Guantanamo Bay. Looking around the room it becomes clear who supports Hillary, who will be volunteering on her campaign: middle-class suburban soccer moms and the daughters that they raised to head off to small liberal arts colleges in nowhere towns out east. She closes her session by telling the crowd that she "has been on the record as against 'Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell" since 1999."

By the time she wraps up her session, it's time for the "Presidential Leadership Forum", a de facto debate moderated by Matt Bai, writer for The New York Times Magazine, and Joan McCarter, contributing editor at Daily Kos. In attendance were all of the Democratic candidates for president, excepting Joe Biden. Before the actual debate starts, Bai points out that Saturday was Barack Obama's birthday, prompting the crowd to sing a few lines of 'Happy Birthday' as the Illinois Senator chuckles amicably.

2007_8_yearlykos_hillary.JPGThe largely cordial forum ran on a simple format: 24 minutes each of questions on Domestic policy, Foreign policy, and what Bai termed "Personal Philosophy and Experience". Each candidate got the opportunity to answer and rebut questions running the gamut from Supreme Court appointments to health care, budget deficits to ending the war in Iraq. While Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd make good points about the mechanics of governance, it's Hillary and Obama that duke it out over tougher questions about broader issues. When asked about ending the war, Hillary says that she voted against the last appropriation for war funding to "send a message" to the Bush administration. She tells the crowd that getting out isn't that easy because the Senate rules make getting to 60 votes quite difficult. On the question of Pakistan, she notes that she has a three-point plan for dealing with Pervez Musharraf, and explains that she wants to use the power of the presidency to put pressure on the Malaki government in Iraq to step up the fight against the insurgency there.

When asked if the US bears responsibility in the role of breeding anti-Americanism abroad, Obama won't come out and answer the question with a straight yes or no, instead condemning the 9/11 hijackers, and talking about a growing role for diplomacy in the Middle East. Barack Obama did talk at length about publicly financing campaigns, and offered that he had bills in the Senate with both Durbin and Fiengold to help fund presidential campaigns. In fact, the staggering amount of money needed to run a campaign and its impact on the presidency was something that nearly all of the candidates agreed on, with all but Hillary raising their hands when asked if they wouldn't take money from Washington lobbyists.

After the Forum, Chicagoist headed off the catch the John Edwards breakout, passing a nearly deserted Chris Dodd breakout, and a closed door Bill Richardson breakout. Arriving at the Edwards breakout, we flashed our media credentials and squeezed into the back of a packed room to catch the closing sentence by a local woman, introducing John Edwards: "I may never get the chance to say this to any of you again, but I believe in this man. Ladies and Gentlemen, the next President of the United States of America, John Edwards!"

Emerging from a side door, Edwards grabs the mic and heads to the center of the packed room of supporters and press. "Before we start, just on a personal note, I just spoke to Elizabeth and she wants me to tell all of you that she's doing great!" Without missing a beat, Edwards goes right into his abbreviated stump speech: Do we want change? Do we want massive change? Cause I believe we need it in the worst possible way. Like in the Presidential Leadership Forum, his message is clear and concise, that change isn't predicated on electing someone, but that voters must hold their elected official, especially Democrats, accountable. He talks briefly about turning down money from Washington lobbyists, and then opens the floor up to questions. As the rowdy, ecstatic crowd stands to cheer and raise their hands, a man in the back of the crowd shouts something, and Edwards turns around. Laughing, he tells the group in the back of the room "I'm too well trained at this; the cameras are over there. But I'll talk to you guys." He takes a question on the death penalty: how can he support capital punishment when all of the evidence indicates that it doesn't work, and is applied unjustly. Edwards tells the crowd that he can appreciate the moral implications of executing someone, but that he "just isn't there," and wants to work to fix the death penalty process, rather than abolish it.

2007_8_candidates.JPGAfter taking a few more questions about public financing of campaigns, and global warming ("I think you have to ask people to sacrifice, but you have to have a plan to go with that sacrifice"), he takes a question from a World Can't Wait delegate about impeachment. How can Edwards not support the impeachment of Bush and Cheney when what they have done in office is so clearly illegal? John Edwards acknowledged that many people feel the same way, he included, but that the work of the Congress, and therefore the nation should be focused on rebuilding the American Presidency, rather than tying up the congress with divisive trials and prosecutions.

As he closed his breakout, Edwards encouraged the crowd to get on his website and send him the questions he didn't get to answer, promising that he will respond to all of them. He thanked the crowd, and asked that they get involved and stay involved, not just in his campaign, but in working to build the Democratic Party from the ground up.

If Hillary's breakout session was about policy points and measured debate, the Edwards breakout was about ideas, optimism and hope, focused on the future of Democrats in the American political landscape. In fact, everything about the Hillary camp at YearlyKos has felt like inevitability; she's running, she'll get the nomination, and she'll be President for the next two terms. The Edwards camp, and his supporters seem far more excited about his candidacy. Yeah, sure, he's running for president, but his message is about changing the tone among Democrats, and the culture in Washington. If, as the Economist has suggested, Edwards is setting the agenda for Democrats, then it's a sure bet we'll see a return to the kind of broad coalition progressive politics that characterized the party in earlier eras. Other Democrats have already sat up and taken note, with Obama and Hillary releasing platform positions and policy statements on the heels of Edwards' more detailed plans and proposals.

Images via MNicoleM and biverson