Net Effects

It's not exactly rare to see the blogosphere in an uproar. But the recent row between supporters of Paul Hackett and backers of Representative Sherrod Brown, who are vying for the Democratic nomination for senator from Ohio, was a bit odder than most. In this fight, the “netroots,” the term for the blogosphere and the online activists who populate it, has come out against a committed liberal and natural ally in favor of a brash Iraq War veteran with a more conservative bent and a paltry political record.

Five years back, few cared which way the netroots swung. A loosely connected confederation of hyper-partisan activists, they were considered the 21st-century equivalent of that weird guy who attends every city-council meeting and can barely contain himself until the floor opens for questions. But over the course of the 2004 cycle, the netroots funneled tens of millions of dollars to various candidates, sometimes single-handedly making quixotic candidacies in unfriendly districts financially viable. From Howard Dean all the way down to Ginnie Schrader (a Pennsylvania-based adoptee who narrowly lost a congressional campaign), the netroots proved themselves political players, and began to be treated as such.

That said, there was little reason to expect their involvement in this contest. Brown is arguably the most prominent elected Democrat in Ohio. More important to the stereotypical netroots participant, he's an unabashed liberal. Earlier this year, he led the fight to reject the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), rendering a Republican president's trade deal nearly unable to clear the Republican-controlled Congress -- no mean feat coming, as it did, months before Ronnie Earle pried apart Tom DeLay's hammerlock on the House. That's par for the course with Brown, one of the House's most effective, articulate spokesmen for progressive causes. A Cleveland Democrat, Brown is pro–gay marriage, pro–gun control, pro-labor, pro-choice, pro–universal health care -- and unabashedly active on all these fronts, Ohio's reddish tinge be damned.

Making his policy positions even more impressive is the fact that he's a proven winner. Since taking his seat more than a decade ago, he's racked up ever more imposing margins of victory, outperforming both Al Gore's and John Kerry's electoral hauls by more than 10 percent. He's sponsored Grow Ohio, a grass-roots organization dedicated to reviving Ohio's fractured, weakened Democratic Party, and tapped a variety of prominent liberal bloggers to help with the effort's online component. In short, he's exactly the sort of Democrat that progressives are constantly complaining the party hasn't enough of.

Hackett, by contrast, is a tough-talking Marine major who returned from Iraq last year and promptly found himself the object of the liberal blogosphere's heated infatuation. Hackett, who'd been honorably discharged five years earlier, volunteered in the summer of 2004 to head to Iraq. He next asked to be transferred to Fallujah, then the country's most dangerous insurgent stronghold. Upon returning to the States, he once again entered hostile territory, vying for the Ohio congressional seat opened up by Republican Rob Portman's nomination to be the U.S. trade representative. The blogs loved him.

This was a seat, representing Ohio's blood-red 2nd District, that Portman had held since 1993, routinely racking up vote totals north of 70 percent. The special election to fill his spot, which took place last August, was supposed to be a joke. The Republican nominee, Jean Schmidt, a former state representative, chair of the Greater Cincinnati Right to Life, and avid marathoner, was expected to lope out an easy victory lap en route to a landslide victory. Then Hackett showed unheard of appeal and unexpected fight, and the blogs adopted him as a favorite son, raising more than $500,000 and providing a host of volunteers for the final get-out-the-vote effort. Brown, in fact, contributed staff, notably Tim Tagaris, a well-known blogger and online organizer. Hackett lost the election, but the newcomer's ability to turn an expected coronation in a crimson district into a nail-biter with a 4-percent margin of victory established him as one of the party's rising stars.

So when nearly every one of the state's prominent Democrats, Brown included, publicly passed on the chance to challenge Ohio's embattled Republican Senator Mike DeWine, speculation -- online and off -- was that it was Hackett's race to run. He gladly took up the challenge, even purchasing an RV to use as a base of operations for the campaign, a transportation decision reminiscent of the late Paul Wellstone's legendary green bus. But then Brown changed his mind, bursting Democratic unity with the prospect of a bitter primary between two beloved sons.

Online, Hackett -- a proud populist who didn't support withdrawal from Iraq until a month ago and whose social tolerance is couched in anti-government, “leave 'em alone” language that extends as surely to guns as to gays -- quickly established a clear lead. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the 800-pound gorilla of the blog world (Daily Kos), has professed neutrality but suggested that Hackett should withdraw from the race. His readers disagreed, and, in a poll, came out for Hackett 84 percent to 15 percent. Similarly, Jerome Armstrong, who runs and has consulted for Brown, penned a post drawing on his experience with the congressman to make the case for his candidacy. But even there, a survey of his readers gave Hackett nearly 60 percent of the vote.

Who are these Net-based activists? Brown, who's advertising across a range of blogs, dismissed them as a stereotype, telling me, “The bloggers who support Paul are out of state … it's the people in San Francisco and Seattle.” Truth is, Zúniga is in Oakland, and there really are no prominent bloggers in San Francisco or Seattle. And the netroots involved in this race certainly don't fit the long-standing picture of the online political community as some sort of hippy demimonde composed of ultraliberals determined to drag the Democrats far to the left. In the online polling over Ohio, what's surprising about the netroots is how little ideology seems to matter. They're really interested in winning and, more to the point, fighting for an agenda they appear to have decided Hackett can better carry out.

A quick rundown of candidates they've thrown significant support to illuminates the point: Howard Dean, a free-trading budget hawk who had the virtue of appearing ready to throw a punch at Joe Lieberman or George W. Bush, whoever stepped in range first; Wesley Clark, a retired four-star general with no domestic record to speak of and an unclear stance on the war; Stephanie Herseth, a South Dakotan representative with a lukewarm 55 percent from Americans for Democratic Action; Brad Carson, a candidate for Senate in Oklahoma with an anti-choice, pro-business voting record. The list continues. What these candidates have in common is not a commitment to liberal policy making but an assumed ability to win and a demonstrated willingness to fight. There are no ideological litmus tests here, only pugilistic ones.

The reality of this was best expressed to me by Bob Brigham, an outspoken Hackett supporter, prominent blogger, and key Hackett adviser during the special election campaign. When I asked him about Hackett's reversal, now favoring withdrawal from Iraq, Brigham mocked the argument as “policy bullshit!” What matters, in other words, is not the policy but the image. And if Hackett appeared a critic of the war, in this age of media candidacies, that -- not his policy preferences on the issue -- is what counts.

Moreover, Hackett is a friend of the blogs. In our conversation, he told me, “I just like them. I'm not afraid.” It's a sentiment that may explain blogger Lindsay Beyerstein's oft-quoted argument for Hackett: “When you get down to brass tacks, Hackett is an invaluable ally -- he loves the blogosphere, understands how to harness the power of the blogosphere, and perhaps most importantly, he owes the blogosphere.”

Lindsay, in fact, may be voicing the most rational blogcentric argument for Hackett. The netroots are behaving as an interest group of sorts, supporting not the candidate with the most ideological overlap but the candidate most likely to give them a key to the congressional washroom. And that's fine. But the question remains, assuming they can help elect Hackett and others like him, what will they demand in return? It's all well and good to have your calls answered, but is the point really just to chat?

Blogs are getting ever more powerful. As fund-raisers, as kingmakers, and as opinion leaders, they're being taken seriously. But at some point Democrats will win, and the netroots, after the victory glow wears off, will have a very tough question to answer: What, exactly, do they believe? And, more importantly, what do they want?

Ezra Klein is a Prospect writing fellow.