Netroots Nation Is Proudly Un-Newsworthy

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 21 2013 10:37 AM

Netroots Nation: First Impressions

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SAN JOSE, Calif.—The main ballroom of the convention hall was about half-full. The big "draw" for the first night's keynote speech was Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who's beloved on the left for trying to reform the filibuster. But he's not exactly a major newsmaker. A media section in the hall made space for 20-odd journalists to sit, plug in, and file stories. Only three of the seats were occupied.

"I don't think anyone cares whether the mainstream media is here to cover this conference," said Adam Bonin, the chair of the conference, revving up the crowd with no notes. (It was too bright to read them.) He remembered how, at the first Netroots Nation (then called YearlyKos) in 2006, bloggers were excited to see the press there. "'Wow, Maureen Dowd is here, she thinks we're interesting!' For the young people here, Maureen Dowd is a columnist who was relevant at one point."

This conference, which has drawn more than 3,000 activists to Silicon Valley, is proudly un-newsy. Conservatives like to schlep their big events by telling activists who they can meet—Rand Paul! Donald Trump! Sarah Palin! It was difficult to even find out who'd be lighting up the night at Netroots, and the closest thing to a politics/2016 story to come out of here so far was CNN's scoop (from Peter Hamby) that Howard Dean had not ruled out a 2016 challenge.

But nobody cares about 2016, and few people can muster real anger about how Barack Obama's disappointed them. A video from the White House started with the re-elected president greeting the conference by name. This got about as much applause as the introduction of Sandra Fluke, who has parlayed her tussle with Rush Limbaugh into a California-based activist career.

"Is the president perfect? No," said former Vermont Gov./DNC Chair/2004 Great Hope Howard Dean. "But it sure is better than having Bain Capital—I mean, Mitt Romney—in there!"

The 2012 election was remembered more for its tactics than its results. Every round of panels included at least one debriefing from organizers who'd outsmarted the GOP—two simultaneous panels told progressives how the Romney "47 percent" video broke. I spent the first day looking for opinions and new activism on the NSA surveillance story. It was there, but it was far from an obsession.

No, the Democrats in power were afterthoughts. Barney Frank, who's just as avuncular and sarcastic out of power as he was in Congress, asked his fellow progressives to "support President Obama's unwillingness to be pushed into Syria," but to be otherwise realistic about terrorism. He drew boos when he defended the idea of drone warfare, asking his audience of 200 or so to consider the costs and benefits of sending troops versus sending robots. But his offense didn't stop him from giving a quick, well-received speech to the main ballroom before his plane took off.

"Harass us, because we really do pay attention," he said. "Look at who's on the ballot, and vote for the candidate you agree with the most. The next time, you get better choices."

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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