Hillary Clinton arrived in Chicago on August 4 facing a delicate problem. Like most of the other Democratic presidential candidates, she'd accepted an invitation to participate in a debate put on by YearlyKos, the annual blogger convention thrown by the popular liberal website DailyKos. But unlike the other candidates, Clinton had hesitated—or, at least, her campaign had hesitated—when she was asked to participate in a separate "breakout" session where YearlyKos attendees could ask her questions in a small-group setting.
On the evening of August 2, as the conference opened, organizers announced that Clinton would not be attending her breakout session. The crowd booed. Critical headlines popped up throughout the blogosphere. Which immediately raised a question: If a Democratic presidential candidate gets booed at a conference of liberal bloggers and then slagged on a bunch of liberal blogs, does it matter?
This was no inconsequential question.
It touches on a long-running debate within the Democratic party over how much influence blogs do (and should) have over the party's politics and politicians. If you asked the "Kossacks" at the Chicago convention, of course, there was no limit to the amount of clout they think the Democratic netroots deserve. But top Democrats haven't always agreed, and with Fox commen-tator Bill O'Reilly making it harder for them by spending the days before the conference spuriously attacking DailyKos as a "hate-filled" site that "rivals the KKK and Nazi websites," people like Clinton were in a bind: Embrace the conference wholeheartedly and risk being painted as kowtowing to rabid (or worse) bloggers, or keep some distance and risk the wrath of the lefty blogosphere.
In a sign of how important the affections of liberal bloggers have now become, Clinton ultimately chose the bloggers, breakout session and all. Her hesitation had drawn an attack from Barack Obama (whose campaign noted that he was attending the conference even though it was his birthday). Once that hit the blogs, her camp quickly reversed itself, saying Clinton had directed her staff to rearrange her schedule so that she could have her in-person chat with the bloggers after all.
There was tension in the air as Clinton walked into her breakout session on the morning of August 4. She was preceded by three aides, including Peter Daou, her director of internet outreach, who looked extremely nervous and reminded the crowd, again, that Clinton intensely wanted to be at the breakout session and had upended her schedule to make it happen. If any audience members' feelings were soothed, it didn't show. National media filled the back of the room, wondering if Clinton would be booed again, or face harsh questions about her vote on the Iraq war, a frequent subject of lefty blog criticism.
But when Clinton entered, she clearly had already sensed (or been briefed on) the bloggers' biggest weakness: their intense desire for recognition and validation.
"I'm aware that not everyone [in the liberal blogosphere] says nice things about me," Clinton said right off the bat. "Let me start by saying something unexpected, and that is thank you. Thank you for being so involved in helping create a modern progressive movement in America."
With that bit of self-deprecation and obeisance to the bloggers, the tension began to drain out of the room. The crowd of about 300 asked Clinton about health care, NAFTA, welfare reform, DOMA, and telecommunications law. They were wonky questions, and Clinton gave wonky answers, obviously aware that people who come to conferences of political bloggers tend to be... wonks. By the end, it was clear that she'd charmed the Kossacks in much the same way she's said to have charmed other smallish rooms of people over the last few years—with humility, an ingratiating manner, well-timed flattery, and a clear command of just about any policy issue that gets thrown at her.
There were no boos and no questions about the Iraq war. Instead, there was simply an awed politeness and safe, respectful questions—leading to some speculation at the conference that the Clinton camp had somehow planted the questioners, or that Daou, with his blogosphere savvy, had known by sight which questioners to call on. But even if that's true, nothing could have stopped the famously direct bloggers from shouting out a question or interrupting the session to press Clinton on some other uncomfortable matter. But none did.
Which raises another question as the campaign marches forward, the bloggers arm in arm, for now, with Clinton: Are the members of the lefty netroots really as tough and critical minded as they sound online? Or are they just like the caricature they often paint of beltway journalists—a bunch of people pining for audiences with powerful politicians, and willing to toss aside their usual adversarial tone in exchange for a little validation of their firstname.lastname@example.org