San Diego Union Tribune

August 29, 2005

Democrats split on tactics over Roberts' nomination

By George E. Condon Jr.

WASHINGTON – Judge John Roberts' nomination to the Supreme Court has exposed a potentially important fissure between Democratic officeholders who want to steer a cautious centrist path and increasingly vocal activists who demand a more confrontational course, both on Roberts and the war in Iraq.

The split is complicated because most of the critics use the Internet as a megaphone for their grievances and have demonstrated the kind of fundraising capability that gets the attention of members of Congress and potential presidential candidates.

The clash between the liberal activists and more moderate officeholders is most pronounced over the war, particularly with Democratic leaders fighting to keep the party from being cast as weak on defense while activists are demanding a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops. But the battle over the Roberts nomination tops the agenda, with Senate hearings set to begin Sept. 6.

"There definitely is great frustration," said David Sirota, who uses his blog and frequent e-mails to reporters to press his crusade to stiffen the spines of Democratic senators. "I don't think it is just the blogs or even the Democratic base. There is frustration that there is no opposition party."

Sirota, who has been a press secretary and a committee staffer in the House, recently helped start the Progressive Legislative Action Network to push liberal policies at the state level. In his writings, he has described Democrats in Washington as "weak-kneed" and lacking "guts" on the Roberts nomination.

He acknowledged that it is probably unrealistic to think Democrats could defeat Roberts. "But if you just roll over and die completely, that is what is unacceptable," he said.

Steve Elmendorf, a veteran of Democratic campaigns, acknowledged that some activists see a reluctance to aggressively take on President Bush.

"There is a split," said Elmendorf, who was former Rep. Dick Gephardt's chief of staff before running his presidential campaign. Elmendorf later played a key role in Sen. John Kerry's bid for the White House.

"There is an activist group in the party that is very Internet savvy, that participates in these blogs and gives money and they have a particularly liberal point of view . . . They have a different point of view on some of these issues than some of our elected officials do," Elmendorf said.

It has always been true that Republican activists were more conservative and Democratic activists more liberal than their parties as a whole. Elected officials have finessed activists' complaints and paid more attention to centrist voters in campaigns.

But the Internet has made that a riskier proposition.

"There is no question that this Internet phenomenon, which Howard Dean was the first wave of, has deepened and matured and is a big deal now," Elmendorf said.

Officeholders, said veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, are "feeling pressure that they didn't before. These are people who have been there for a long time but didn't have an organized avenue of expression and didn't have a place of prominence. Well, now they have a place of prominence as a group from their fundraising power and they have an organized voice in the blogosphere."

Elmendorf said the activists have earned this influence because they delivered in 2004 for Dean and then for Kerry. "For Kerry, they were not just a financial resource," he said. "They were a real asset. You could send out an e-mail saying we need 300 people in Ohio at 2 o'clock in Cincinnati to go to a protest against Bush or go to a rally for John Kerry. And they responded."

Boston-based Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh warned that a Democrat who caters too much to this base will lose any chance of winning the votes of centrists who can boost a national candidate to a majority.

"It's a lot of noise and a lot of heat," she said. "That certainly is a good thing. But it is not going to win elections for you unless it is based on something that really matters and makes a difference in the lives of people who vote."

Expending too much energy to try to defeat Roberts in the face of his almost-certain confirmation would likely hurt most Democratic senators at the next election, she said, though they would win plaudits on Web sites.

"If the blogs and the Internet were everything in an election, then Howard Dean would be president," she added.

Samuel Popkin, a professor at the University of California San Diego and a top adviser to past Democratic presidential campaigns, lamented the "air of unreality" surrounding some of the demands from activists.

But he called the pressure they can exert "just part of the world now. And the problem for the pros is that they have no idea how much power they really have."

Most of the political pros believe it will take another election cycle to get that answer. But the prediction from the blogosphere is that the power is real. Chris Bowers, a Philadelphia blogger and union organizer, just completed a study of the political influence of bloggers.

His report, written with fellow blogger Matthew Stoller, was widely distributed among Democrats on Capitol Hill. It said that in July, the top 98 progressive blogs racked up 15.2 million page views each week, more than five times the entire readership of political blogs only two years ago.

"We are reform Democrats but we also tend to be progressive Democrats," he wrote. "We are also much, much more powerful than we were in mid-2003 when Dean began his meteoric rise. Imagine where we will be in 2007."

Elected Democrats need not fear this power, Sirota said. "We're just looking for more conviction. The Democrats don't seem to yet understand that conviction is the best tactic."

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