Respond to this Article January/February 2006

Kos Call

For America's number one liberal blogger
politics is like sports: It's all about winning.

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells

Editor's note: Click (here) for corrections to this article.

I hate Washington," says Markos Moulitsas Zuniga. Many people, of course, say that they hate Washington. Jay Leno says so. So do Rush Limbaugh and Monica Lewinsky. But Moulitsas, who is the world's biggest political blogger, says it differently, with a freshly arrived-at and deeply felt zeal, as if he himself has discovered the place and its pathologies anew. When Moulitsas says Washington, he's not talking about Bush's Washington with its pitched partisan camps and pay-to-play ethos. He's talking about Democratic Washington: the liberal Ivy League mandarins, consultants, and wonks, many of them refugees from the Clinton administration, insiders whom he believes have run the Democratic Party and the progressive movement into the ground, by valuing compromise over confrontation. To him, it's not that these people have the wrong values or priorities. It's that they are failures. Moulitsas's career to this point has been a bet that enough other people share this very precise, nearly sub-articulate animus. I hate Washington.

And yet there he was, just after the 2004 elections, in the ornate Lyndon B. Johnson room of the capitol where he'd been invited to give Senate Democrats a post mortem on what went wrong. The party had just lost its third election in a row, and his audience, a self-flagellatory group at the best of times, was feeling glum and a little bit desperate. Moulitsas told the assembled crowd that they, the establishment, had mismanaged party strategy for too long and that he, Markos, had a better plan. He can be so intense and high-strung, so full of kinetic energy, that the sheer performance of his speeches--he never writes them out, just talks off-the-cuff--can be distracting, like watching snakes fighting in a bag. As he held forth, urging Democrats to rely upon technology and embrace partisanship and confrontation, Moulitsas's audience was one-part bewildered, one-part overwhelmed, and maybe a little inspired. "I'm not sure everyone really knew what to think," one Senate aide told me.

Moulitsas's appearance before the Democratic caucus was a verbal version of what he writes every day on his blog, DailyKos. The site, which has existed for only around three and a half years, now has 3.7 million readers each week. That's more than the top 10 opinion magazines--of both left and right--combined, more readers than any political publication has had, ever, in the history of the world. In addition, Moulitsas used the site to raise $500,000 for Democratic candidates in the last election cycle--making him one of the party's top fund-raisers. And, thanks to his early and enthusiastic backing of Howard Dean's campaign for the party's presidential nomination, Moulitsas became perhaps the key player in Dean's Internet-based rise to prominence.

This record, combined with the sheer vigor and clarity of his online manifestos, has brought Moulitsas, a 34-year-old Californian whom nobody had heard of until three years ago, to the attention of the Democratic establishment, first as a resented adversary and now, increasingly, a kind of part-time sage, an affiliate member. Every third week, Moulitsas has a standing phone call with congressional powerbroker Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.), and he talks regularly with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). In part, this is raw flattery, a way for Democratic politicians to keep a particularly shrill irritant off their own backs while simultaneously reaching out to his audience, the party's young, liberal, professional grassroots. But it's not just an empty gesture. Moulitsas has become so well incorporated into the party machinery that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) uses him to recruit candidates. "They get calls from, like John Edwards, and maybe Tom Vilsack, and then, always, Markos," one DCCC staffer told me. This legacy has made him the current champion of that wing of the Democratic Party--anti-war, deeply partisan, young, mostly white, and professional--that seemed ascendant in the year before the first Democratic primaries in 2004. Deanism, in Moulitsas's hands, in an unending belief in the triumphal capacities of the right kind of theatrics, the importance not just of saying the right things, but of saying them with an uncompromising zeal, and gut, and feeling.

This kind of access would not have been possible in a different political moment. But long, uninterrupted strings of losses tend to break down the old hierarchies and democratize things. The myth of Karl Rove, which looms over American politics, and the conviction that the party's wins or losses are a matter of tactics, not substance, has left the Democrats looking for their own master tactician. And some in the party seem to want to see Moulitsas in that role.

The conventional wisdom is that a Democratic Party in which Moulitsas calls the shots would cater to every whim of its liberal base. But though he can match Michael Moore for shrillness, the most salient thing about Moulitsas's politics is not where he falls on the left-right spectrum (he's actually not very far left). It's his relentless competitiveness, founded not on any particular set of political principles, but on an obsession with tactics --and in particular, with the tactics of a besieged minority, struggling for survival: stand up for your principles, stay united, and never back down from a fight. "They want to make me into the latest Jesse Jackson, but I'm not ideological at all," Moulitsas told me, "I'm just all about winning."

Some influential Democrats believe this new mindset has been largely responsible for many of the party's recent successes in Washington--fighting off the White House's Social-Security privatization plan, closing down the Senate to force an investigation into pre-war intelligence, and defeating an attempt by the White House to suspend labor laws in the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. "These Democratic insiders believe that Moulitsas and his website, who helped egg the party on in this toughened moment, might be transformative, and they want to place a gaudy bet on him.

They also believe, even more strongly, that Moulitsas is transformative, that he contains the trigger for a new political epoch. The DCCC's executive director, John Lapp, says that Moulitsas's model is "a signal event in political history, like the Kennedy-Nixon debates, in how it gets people involved." And Simon Rosenberg, the president of the centrist New Democratic Network (NDN), says that "frankly I don't think there's anyone who's had the potential to revolutionize the Democratic Party that Markos does." This great faith has put Moulitsas--an extremely smart, irascible, self-contradictory, often petty, always difficult, non-practicing attorney and web programmer with no real political experience--in the position of trying to understand, on the fly, what real power is and how it might be exercised, thrust him into a flailing, wild-eyed and bold solitary venture, trying to turn a website into a movement.

To the Berkeley hills

"Everybody says I'm an asshole, and they're right, I am," Moulitsas says. We are walking around his Berkeley neighborhood, and his stride is as purposeful as his conversation; I've probably got eight inches on him, and I've got to hustle to keep up. Talking with Moulitsas, like reading his blog, is a singularly withering experience. He speaks in twenty-minute chunks, so you don't need to ask questions so much as provision buckets to catch the flood. When I nodded to agree with a point he made, he looked mildly disappointed; his conversation tends to circle back over itself, probing, seeking resistance. Moulitsas is not a naturally commanding presence--he's 5'6, slender, with a high-pitched voice and a rounded face that puts you vaguely in mind of an animated frog. Neither is he a naturally social person: He will never move to Washington, he told me, in part because he's suspicious of the "cocktail party circuit." And when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee threw a party for him and some other bloggers at last year's Boston convention, he arrived, immediately picked a loud, disruptive fight with the organization's executive director, Jim Bonham, and stormed out. Midway through our conversation in Berkeley, I suddenly realized a tick of his: He never blinks.

Moulitsas's neighborhood, a few dozen square blocks bordering Oakland, is not the Eloii-inscribed Berkeley of fantasy--cappuccino, sexy radicals, a sustaining belief in the martyrdom of Leonard Peltier. It is, instead, the kind of working-class neighborhood where the Department of Public Health posts billboard ads about the dangers of syphilis in three languages simultaneously. When Moulitsas moved here a few years ago, there were four crack houses on his block. "And I still rent," he says, in a tone somewhere between resignation and despair. He lives in a three-room house, with a flowering, taller-than-a-man pink bush by the front door, which you can see from down the street--it looks from the corner like a huge splash of paint on a drab block. Inside is his office…well, it's not an office, really, just a power cord he plugs into his laptop, now at his desk, now at the coffee table. Moulitsas lives here with his wife, a reporter from Wired News, and his two-year old son Ari, whose toys are scattered around the yard and the living room.

Moulitsas's single, unalloyed fantasy is the classic dream of the newly-come westerner--to buy a plot of land up in the Berkeley hills on which to build, to begin. But the plots are expensive and going fast. The income Moulitsas has generated from advertisers on Daily Kos isn't enough for even this modest, middle-class dream; to get there more quickly, he's banking on a book due out next spring, which will distill what you get on his blog--vituperative attacks on the Bush administration, Democratic insiders, and the media. To build his house, then, Moulitsas has made a smaller version of the bet the Democratic establishment is making on him: that his philosophy is something coherent and salable in his own right, and not just the thing his readers tolerate because he's got a cool website.

And if the book's not enough, there are the sports blogs. A company Moulitsas started last year operates blogs written by and for fans of each of about a dozen baseball teams (there's Amazin' Avenue for the Mets, Athletics Nation for the A's) in which fans rip the talent just like on sports radio--the players are wimps, the coach is an idiot, I could do better. (One of the sports bloggers Moulitsas has on salary compared his role to Stadler and Waldorf, the stuffed, bomb-throwing theater critics from the Muppet Show). It's hard not to be struck by the similarity--in tone, and rhetoric-- between these blogs and Daily Kos. Moulitsas himself has noticed the parallel. "If I'm not thinking about politics, I'm thinking about sports," he once told Wired magazine. "I've realized blogs are most effective when talking to partisan audiences. What we have in the sports world, like in the political world, is people want to be heard, they want to give their opinion."

Stepping over bodies

Moulitsas was born in Chicago to a middle class, ethnically-Greek family from El Salvador (his uncle, an architect, had briefly been that country's education minister). The family moved back to El Salvador when Moulitsas was four and was on the right-wing side of the Cold War proxy fight there. But as that war's intrusions became unbearable--Moulitsas talks about stepping over dead bodies--the family returned to Chicago, where he grew up, in his own words, "a loudmouthed nerd."

After high school, Moulitsas, then a Reagan Republican thanks largely to the White House's support of the Salvadorean government, spent four years as an army artillery scout, mainly in Germany. He had begun to gravitate leftwards while in the military--its diversity had incubated in him a kind of nascent identity politics liberalism--and when he was discharged and enrolled at Northern Illinois University, he became active in campus politics, writing a column for the school paper and helping to lead the college's Hispanic student group. After he graduated, he took another degree, from Boston University's law school, and then, in 1998, moved out to San Francisco to try his luck in Silicon Valley.

A couple of years later, now married, he moved again, to Berkeley, exasperated at the realization that he wasn't going to make a fortune in the high-tech boom. "Maybe at some time, Silicon Valley really was this democratic ideal where the guy with the best idea made a billion dollars, but by the time I got there at least, it was just like anything else--a bunch of rich kids who knew each other running around and it all depended on who you knew," Moulitsas told me. Unemployed, Moulitsas, started posting comments on a site called MyDD.com, the most insidery of the emerging liberal blogs. During late 2001 and early 2002, he developed a following, for the strength and clarity of his denunciations of the Bush administration. Moulitsas started his own blog, and, in the summer of 2002, Daily Kos opened for business.

In November 2002, the Democrats lost seats in the midterm elections. Moulitsas had confidently predicted a big win, but in the aftermath of the disappointment, he became convinced that he understood the key to the party's electoral failure. Republicans, he believed, had a "noise machine,"--a coalition of coordinated advocacy and opinion media outlets that pressured the mainstream media into reporting, and repeating, GOP-friendly spin. "The simplest fact about American politics," he told me, "is that Republicans have a noise machine and we don't." Daily Kos, he decided, would become the Democratic noise machine, pressing the case against the Bush administration and the Iraq war in the strongest terms possible. Moulitsas's posts are not long or involved--and he clearly has no literary pretensions--but they are clear and consistent. Some news of the day has reinforced either the corruption and evil of Republicans, the gullible incomprehension of the media, or the timidity and incoherence of the Democrats. The site is for the true believers, not the aesthetes; its tone is harsh, impassioned, and frequently humorless.

And sometimes infantile and absurd. The site in recent months has become to seem like the site of some arcane political Thermidor with puzzled liberals being endlessly impaled upon pikes. In June 2003, after television cameras caught a cheering, thousand-strong mob in Fallujah dragging the charred, dismembered bodies of American contractors through the streets, Moulitsas linked to the reports and said of the contractors: "I feel nothing… Screw them." The declaration, gleefully seized on by right-wing bloggers, provoked weeks of controversy. Democratic candidates came under pressure to pull their advertisements from the site, and even Moulitsas's traditional allies in the liberal blogosphere--including The Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum--criticized him. (When I asked Moulitsas recently how he felt about the episode, his mouth stretched into a smile: "Vindicated," he said. The media has recently begun to question the role of American contractors in Iraq, he pointed out, which was the point all along. This is how a liberal noise machine, freed from the don't-shatter-the-porcelain decorum, might work.)

If the episode hurt him, it wasn't evident from his readership numbers, which continued to sky-rocket. ("It was a blip!" he crowed to The New York Times). This was in part because Moulitsas, applying the innovation he'd learnt from MyDD, was giving readers information that had previously been the exclusive province of insiders. He pored over polls and fundraising stats for hundreds of congressional races around the country--a task made possible by the internet, where local newspaper polls and reports were available for free--which he linked to on his site.

For decades, there's been a certain knowing, insider language that operatives and journalists in Washington have shared, an understanding of where parties are putting their resources, of who is really ahead in the polls, of whose ground game is stronger, that always gave them a special authority, and an ability to claim to understand the political landscape long before Election Day. Now, thanks to Daily Kos and similar sites, everyone has access to the same basic information, and the privileged insider status of the political professionals counts for much less.

This was the political equivalent of what baseball statistics maven Bill James did in the late 1970s when he published his first Baseball Abstract, giving ordinary fans the tools they needed to knowledgeably second-guess the tactics of the coaches, and to argue that they would run things differently. And because the Daily Kos allowed readers to comment, it went even further than James could, aping sports talk radio by letting political junkies hash out tactics together and argue with each other.

Being able to argue about politics online was exciting, but a website with a comments function is hardly unusual. In October of 2003, though, Moulitsas transferred his site over to a technology called Scoop, which allowed registered readers to maintain diaries--their own unique weblogs. Suddenly, Moulitsas had transformed his site from something that looked kind of like a newspaper column into a genuinely new, complex community filled not with readers but with writers. "Scoop has the potential to revolutionize political participation," the NDN's Rosenberg told me. "The old model was that you used your body to take part in the political process--you drove voters to the polls, registered them. Markos's model is: You use your mind. You get to figure out what the party ought to be doing, you get to figure out what's wrong with the Bush administration, you get to be the intellectual. It's an infinitely more involving activity." Soon, Moulitsas's site had spawned eponymous new stars, well-read diarists who carried Moulitsas's crusades forward when he was otherwise engaged or asleep: Billmon, DavidNYC, Bill in Portland, Maine. If they were good--or outrageous--enough, he promoted them to the main site, allowing them to share space with him and exposing them to an audience that was growing by the tens of thousands.

There was another reason, though, why hundreds of thousands of liberals around the country found themselves addictively checking and rechecking Daily Kos as the 2004 election approached. It made them think Democrats were going to win. Moulitsas wasn't just posting any polls, he was selecting those that suggested Democrats--from John Kerry to congressional candidates--were heading for victory, while downplaying less encouraging signs. It left liberals trapped in a bubble of reassurance. Heading into the election, it would have been reasonable to assume from the evidence presented on Daily Kos that Kerry was the clear favorite to beat Bush, and that Democrats were likely to pick up seats in both houses of Congress. When none of these things happened, there was a sense of incomprehension. All of Kos's confident predictions had been wrong. "It's a valid criticism. Looking back, I was too optimistic," Moulitsas told me. "[At] the beginning, I didn't even know what a margin of error was."

Worse, Kos hadn't just fared poorly as an armchair quarterback--he'd been beaten on the field, too. In the Democratic primaries, he first backed Dean, then Wesley Clark. Both sparked grassroots excitement, but ultimately, of course, flamed out. Then, of the 13 Democratic candidates for Congress that Moulitsas handpicked for his readers to support--and for whom he raised over $500,000– not a single one prevailed.

The ideology of winnerism

Many expected Moulitsas's readership to shrivel after the election. Instead, it has nearly doubled; so, it often seems, has his influence. In the spring, readers on his blog began to champion the candidacy of Paul Hackett, a retired Iraq Marine colonel running for Congress in Ohio. Hackett had returned from the war to oppose it, and the site's readers, who loved the pure theatrics of a strapping guy in uniform who took their side, helped turn him into a national figure. He went on to lose, but he did well enough in a deep-red district that he's now running for Senate from Ohio. In August, the site's constant shilling of Cindy Sheehan, whose soldier son had died in Iraq and who set up an anti-war camp outside of the president's Crawford ranch, helped keep that story in the news for the whole month.

Sometimes, Moulitsas has used his noise machine boldly and well, shaking up the party and the broader movement in useful ways. He went after the Democratic consultant hierarchy for its refusal to innovate, and the party establishment for providing a "gravy train" for consultants who keep losing races. He attacked NARAL after the abortion rights organization endorsed pro-choice Republican senator Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) over his predicted challenger, a pro-life Democrat. He has also argued, along with others, that to win back red states, Democrats should avoid talking about gun-control--advice the party has largely taken, with some initial success.

But it's not always possible to discern a clear principle governing the tactics Moulitsas employs, and the fights he takes on. And his dogmatic notions of what Democrats need to do to win can often seem idiosyncratic, prescriptive rules made on the fly. On the one hand, he frequently attacks Democrats such as Tom Daschle, for doing things that he believes damage the party's chances of winning. But when, just before the 2004 primaries began, Jonathan Chait, a New Republic writer, did essentially the same thing--starting a blog called "The Dean-o-phobe" that argued, on pragmatic grounds, that Dean was unlikely to win a general election and that nominating him would therefore hurt the party--Moulitsas attacked Chait for criticizing a Democrat. (At one point during this one-way feud, Moulitsas sent Chait's co-workers an email apologizing for the fact that he was going to spearhead a boycott of their magazine, telling them it was "nothing personal.")

His most curious crusade of all was the one he began in late August of 2005, when he declared on his site that he had a secret plan to destroy the Democratic Leadership Council. A few years ago, when the organization of Democratic centrists was backing the invasion of Iraq and flirting with Social-Security privatization, this might have made sense. But by last year, the DLC had begun loudly denouncing Bush, particularly for his handling of Iraq, and was generally in agreement with Moulitsas and the party's activist base on a broad range of issues. Moulitsas, for his part, had spent the previous few months focused on taking on the liberal interest groups, urging Democrats to run more pro-life candidates, and to contest rural contests with rural values--all long-held tenets of the DLC. So Moulitsas's beef with the group wasn't over ideology, it was, predictably, over tactics. But even here, the ire seemed misplaced: The DLC is hardly averse to a strategy that puts winning ahead of ideological purity--it helped make its reputation in the early '90s by advising Bill Clinton to adopt just that kind of pragmatism, arguing that electoral victory was more important than philosophical correctness.

Still, Moulitsas wouldn't back down. "No calls for a truce will be brooked," he wrote. "Appeals to party unity will fall on deaf ear… We need to make the DLC radioactive. And we will. With everyone's help, we really can. Stay tuned." As the countdown continued, Moulitsas posted millennial-sounding attacks on the DLC that veered, like the writings of the Ayatollahs, between the merely portentous and the outright ludicrous. Some liberal websites, ecstatic, began speculating about what Moulitsas's plan might be; others posted count-down clocks. And then…nothing. Three days before the scheduled unveiling, Moulitsas wrote that he'd changed his mind. Hurricane Katrina, which had just struck, had made him realize, he said, that this was not the time for intra-party bickering. "We think someone got to him," a DLC staffer told me darkly.

That Moulitsas would be attacking a group with whom he generally agrees can be explained in part by his lack of historical perspective. One Washington supporter of Moulitsas told me recently: "Because of their generation and because they're Silicon Valley guys who were focused on other things, Markos and the netroots guys, their political consciousness basically begins with maybe the impeachment, and then Florida, and then Iraq, and his sense of the parties is basically, we're liberal and they're conservative. And so all of these fights the Democrats have been going through for 30 years, and the Clinton, New Democratic thing--Markos just doesn't really get it. He hasn't been reading The New Republic and The Washington Monthly forever. He just sits there and thinks, Why the hell are these guys running things? They back losers!"

Of course, it's not just Moulitsas. The younger-than-35 liberal professionals who account for most of his audience seem an ideologically satisfied group, with no fundamental paradigm--changing demands to make of the Democratic Party. They don't believe strongly, as successive generations of progressives have, that the Democratic Party must develop more government programs to help the poor, or that racial and ethnic minorities are wildly underrepresented, or that the party is in need of a fundamental reform towards the pragmatic center--or at least they don't believe so in any kind of consistent or organized manner. As this generation begins to move into positions of power within the progressive movement and the Democratic Party, they don't pose much of a challenge on issues or substance. So the tactical critique takes center stage.

Moulitsas's sensibility suits his generation perfectly. But it also comes with a built-in cost. Moulitsas is just basically uninterested in the intellectual and philosophical debates that lie behind the daily political trench warfare. By his own admission, he just doesn't care about policy. It's here that the correlation between sports and politics breaks down. In sports, as Vince Lombardi is said to have put it, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." When the season is over, you hang up your cleats and wait for the next season. But in politics, that's not the case--you have to govern, and if you don't govern well, you won't get reelected. So while tactics and message are crucial, most voters will ultimately demand from politicians ideas that give them a sense of what a party is going to do once in power. Wanting to win very badly is an admirable and necessary quality in politics, and Moulitsas is right that Democrats have needed it in greater quantity. But it is not really a political philosophy.

That's not Moulitsas's fault, of course. He doesn't pretend to be a policy wonk. But the more that the Democratic Party turns to Moulitsas for help, the more the limits to his movement become apparent, the less the raw animus of many liberals for the Iraq war seems likely to translate into any lasting liberal movement, and the more the current obsession with his brand of Winnerism looks misplaced. Moulitsas's great aspiration has been to make the Democratic grassroots as disciplined, directed, and on-message as any whip would want his party in Congress to be. "But at some point someone's going to have to step up and say, okay, this is where the party's got to go," Ed Kilgore, a prominent Democratic strategist and longtime member of the DLC, told me recently. "And right now it still feels awfully up for grabs."

No Bill James

Moulitsas is touchy, far too self-assured, and easily provoked. But he's more interesting in person than he is on his blog, more thoughtful and funny and even a little bit more capable of self-criticism. He laughs, he makes fun of himself, he says absurd things and then takes them back, and then thinks again and doesn't--he actually enjoys himself. He told me a long story about egging on a blogger named Chris Bowers, who posts at MyDD.com, the same site where Moulitsas got his start. "I keep telling him, Chris, you've got to be an asshole, you're too soft for politics, the only way is to be an asshole, and you know what?" Moulitsas grins triumphantly. "He did. He's a lot tougher now."

Most other bloggers think that Moulitsas is a fame hound, a loudmouthed nerd at the back of the room pulling ever more absurd stunts to get attention--What if I doctor the photo of Zell Miller, so it has fangs, and blood cascading from its mouth? What if I did it without wearing any pants?

But the guy could be on cable television every day of the week--Moulitsas is young, smart, says cutting and ludicrous things--but he has made it a policy to refuse all television appearances, for six months now. What he's after isn't fame but power--and not any old power, but the kind of Silicon Valley-derived sense of power that holds that only the people who know how to program code can ever really run things. "All he really wants is not to be president, or governor, or have statues built for him," one of his friends told me, "but maybe to help run the DCCC, to help Democrats win, and to have been right."

To have been right. It's not a bad ambition, as ambitions go, and we'll soon find out whether Moulitsas can achieve it. Bill James spent years arguing from the sidelines that the baseball establishment didn't understand how to properly evaluate players, and that his statistics-based approach was superior. In 2002, the Boston Red Sox hired him as a consultant, and started taking his advice. Within two years, they'd won a championship. For Moulitsas, next year's election cycle might provide the test--if the powers that be continue to take his advice. That's when we'll begin to know whether the ideology of winnerism can truly be a winner.

That sense of impending judgment suits Moulitsas fine. He is acutely aware of the limits of his moment. "There are technologies that are coming out there that I just don't get--I try, but I just don't get them the way I got blogs," he told me. "Crooks and Liars is like the second biggest liberal blog now, and it's all video clips. And Friendster--I have a Friendster account, I understand in the abstract that people would like the web to connect it in a certain way, but I don't get it, I don't understand how it works."

He paused for a minute, looking unusually non-agitated. "So the point is I know I have only a certain amount of time like this, and I'd like to make sure I do something useful with it."

The only nagging question is: What?

Benjamin Wallace-Wells is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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