Party Central 

Berkeley blogger Markos Moulitsas wants nothing less than to reinvent party politics.

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"'Blogger is such a stupid word!" Moulitsas mourns, burying his face in a couch cushion in frustration. "It's like saying I'm a 'telephoner' because I use the telephone, or I'm a 'computerer' because I use a computer. A blog is a tool and it could be used for any number of different things and in any number of different ways." He breaks down a few of the better-known lefty bloggers: Cox is a gossip columnist; Duncan Black, better known as Atrios of the blog Eschaton, provides an information gateway. Markos describes Joshua Micah Marshall, a Washington Monthly reporter who blogs the Talking Points Memo, as "clearly a DC insider-type journalist." But what about Kos himself? "I'm an activist," he says simply.

The awesome power of sites like Daily Kos certainly has not been overlooked by the political establishment. Shortly after the election, Moulitsas spent one morning scoffing online at a second Kerry presidential bid; he'd also recently criticized the campaign for mainly using its multimillion-name e-mail list to solicit donations, instead of rallying voters to the polls. But despite Moulitsas' snark on Kerry, that afternoon his cell phone rang with a Kerry operative wanting to do an election post-mortem. Moulitsas gave him some friendly advice: stay away from making claims about fraud in Ohio until there's conclusive evidence, and concentrate on using that e-mail list and the campaign's leftover $30 million to help Democrats take the 2006 midterms.

At moments such as this it becomes hard to tell where Moulitsas stands relative to the political process. Is he an outsider, lobbing criticisms at the Democratic Party? Or is he an insider who has the ear of their campaigners? "I am a party activist," he says after chewing on the question for a while. "At the end of the day, I want what's best for the party and I've been very vociferous about it."

Some Daily Kos readers are clearly concerned about how partisan bloggers interact with the politicians they cover. "I would say one of the overriding issues facing the major blogs is their situation with regard to the Democratic Party," writes a longtime Kos poster from San Francisco who goes by the online name Marisacat. "Are they independent or not, do they receive missives/faxes/communications from the party (and more recently the campaign) and treat it like any other press release or release of information, or do they feel 'bound' by a relationship? And is being in the loop with the party dependent on what they blog and who holds sway at the site?"

During the campaign, for instance, Moulitsas' connections to the Dean and Clark campaigns raised more than a few eyebrows. Brian Reich, writing on the Web site Personal Democracy Forum, dubbed the Daily Kos "machine politics 2.0." He criticized Armstrong-Zúniga for not revealing its client roster during the '04 campaign season, and suggested that both men used their blogs to push the consulting firm's candidates. "While the Daily Kos is a community site, it is hardly a democracy," Reich writes. "Make no mistake, it is Kos' world, and his readers and writers are all just playing into it."

In response to the first point, Moulitsas says he is no longer consulting and therefore has no clients to reveal -- although he concedes that could change if someone particularly exciting comes along in 2006. And on the second, he is quick to respond that he and his site are clearly partisan, and that the whole idea of blogging is to promulgate your own opinion. "My site is my site," he says. "You can start your own site. That's the whole point: Anybody can do this."

Reich's criticism also overlooks the fact that most of Moulitsas' readers have gathered around because they like what he has to say -- they find him charismatic and thought-provoking and an antidote to what they call the "so-called liberal media," which they consider to be a conservative-leaning echo chamber. Most of them will readily defend the right of bloggers to take sides. "Kos, Atrios, and the others make no bones about who they are supporting, so you know that you are receiving biased material at times, but I consider that to me much more honest than, say, Fox News, who purports to be unbiased but is actually under the thumb of right-wing ideologue Rupert Murdoch and the GOP," writes Kos reader Kevin Theis, who was inspired by Daily Kos to launch "Operation Fool Me Once," a letter-writing campaign that asked editors of newspapers that endorsed Bush in 2000 to change sides.

But whether the liberal blogs have created an echo chamber of their own is something many Kos readers struggle with. "I do worry a bit about insularity," writes Marilyn Jones-Wilson, a Kos reader from Oak Park, Michigan. "The Kos community and blogs in general felt so positive about a Kerry victory that the loss was even harder for me than for my friends who felt pessimistic about Kerry's chances." Marisacat worries that the blogs sometimes played up good news about Kerry and dismissed anything that boded ill for the Democrats. "Even mild criticism of Kerry from posters was so attacked and denigrated by others that it was wearing," she writes.

But while Kos posters may have overestimated how well their candidate was performing, Delehanty points out that they excelled at pinpointing what the other side, and the mainstream media, were doing wrong. "One of the roles of an oppositional politics is to watch, to witness, to pay attention," he says. Kos readers certainly turned out to be a ruthless fact-checking force. And given how easy it now is to dig for archival information on Lexis-Nexis or CSPAN, and how quickly that can be uploaded to the Web; the likelihood of more investigative scoops emerging from the blogosphere is overwhelming. "Technology has so democratized activism that anybody can really take the lead and take charge," Moulitsas says.

With the Republicans controlling both the White House and Congress, there should be plenty for the progressive blogs to investigate. "It would have been nice if Daily Kos would have become obsolete for the next four years, but the fact is that Bush is going to put out all the ammunition we need," Moulitsas muses. "I think the fact that we are a minority and that we have to fight to retake the country will energize a lot of people."

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