Gore’s surprise visit highlights Netroots conference
Former vice president speaks at Austin convention for liberal bloggers.
By Patrick Beach
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Name-dropping Al Gore and his call for a switch to clean, renewable energy within 10 years was enough to pull whoops of approval from the 2,000 or 3,000 marauding liberals gathered for Netroots Nation at the Austin Convention Center on Saturday morning.
So when the former vice president and Nobel Prize co-winner made a surprise â€” and cleverly scripted â€” appearance during U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s talk, it looked like the conference might turn into a faint-in.
Talk that Pelosi (who is arguably so left-leaning that her parenthetical should be D-Beijing) would have a Very Special Guest had been buzzing about the conference of liberal bloggers, pols and media types since it began Thursday (it concludes today). But it wasn’t clear to attendees that something was afoot until a schedule change handed out Saturday morning indicated the speaker’s talk would last 45 minutes longer than previously indicated.
Not that Gore’s appearance was necessary to whip up the troops.
From the beginning, it was clear these people were convinced the electoral map would be repainted with a brush sopping with blue paint come November.
The believers will tell you it’s morning, that they smell the napalm. And it smells like, oh, yes, victory.
It didn’t seem to matter that the conservative and much smaller Defending the American Dream Summit â€” featuring syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin and Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr â€” was going on in Austin at the same time. That was miles from downtown, so there was little chance for a rumble.
With the current administration’s low approval rating, a charismatic presumptive Democratic nominee and a Republican opponent some in the GOP have been reluctant to even air-kiss, the energy was palpable and, like the political blogosphere, terribly self-confirming.
They went to panels about how the presidential election would be won house by house, block by block. They staged mock media interviews and critiqued themselves, and showed films (“Crawford”) and Internet videos (“Harry Potter and Dark Lord Waldemart”). They attended panels on the war, health care, online social networks, volunteer organizing and expanding the networking power of something called an “Internet.”
There was even one panel Friday featuring Princeton economics professor and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (wearing, as if to galvanize stereotype, what appeared to be Birkenstocks) that was essentially about how the media weren’t liberal enough.
As they say, only in Austin.
Filmmaker Paul Stekler, who teaches film production and politics at the University of Texas, said:”As you have greater democratization (through the use of technology to distribute one’s message), you also have a greater degree of what’s called confirmation bias. We live in a very different and weird world in terms of dissemination of information right now.”
Indeed, you couldn’t find anybody who disagreed that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were “two ignoramuses,” a label hurled by Parag Mehta, the Democratic National Committee’s director of training.
Big names? Got ’em. There was Markos Moulitsas ZÃºniga, founder of the Daily Kos political blog, who hatched the idea a few years ago to get his like-minded pals together and who, in a Friday lunchtime keynote with Harold Ford Jr., chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, seemed amazed at what the notion had unleashed.
“We’re going to keep growing; we’re going to keep pushing for an unapologetic Democratic Party,” Moulitsas said.
Then there was John Dean, the former Nixon White House counsel who has made a second career of railing against what he considers right-wing excesses the way recovering alcoholics preach against strong drink.
“I have deep fear of my former tribe, and what they might do particularly in the law,” Dean said, before going on to refer to former Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani as “Richard Nixon on crystal meth.”
It’s plinking bass in a barrel to paint liberals as overly intellectual types incapable of having fun unless reading Noam Chomsky counts, and it sure does for them. And there were a handful of colorful characters, including some men from Cedar Creek who looked like bikers and represented the Warrior Wolf Society, which they described as “a group of pagan warriors with wolf totem spirit,” and a guy in a Bush mask and clothing with prison stripes.
But for the most part, these were serious-minded people, and decorum prevailed.
When a few people had the temerity to shout at Pelosi and Gore, they got shushed as mercilessly as they would have at a Nanci Griffith concert.
The no fun thing? Maybe it’s because, as Democrats, they’re not used to having it.
The incredible imploding presidential campaigns of Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry were used as textbook examples of what not to do. As political ad man John Rowley put it, he’s been in the business for 15 years and only the last two have been good in terms of the political tide. Still, he said, “We’ve got to get ready for the day when we’re not swimming downstream.”
In other words, what a pendulum does is swing. But technology is power, and the left has been quicker to adopt it. As Gore put it Saturday morning:
“You are at the cutting edge of a new era of history. You will look back many years from now and tell your grandchildren about coming here to Austin, Texas, and about the first two meetings of Netroots Nation, and you will tell them that this was the beginning of an effort that was the start to reclaim the integrity of American democracy.”
That is exactly what Joe Trippi had in mind. It was the one-time Howard Dean campaign aide who saw, perhaps a little too early and a little too enthusiastically, the transformative power of the Web. As he walked from one place to another Friday afternoon, he got stopped every 20 feet or so by people who knew him or at least knew of his ideas. And this is what they had wrought; this is what he had predicted.
“It’s amazing,” Trippi said. “I knew it was going to happen, but I’m still blown away that it happened.”