I promised to offer a few ruminations comparing and contrasting the DLC National Conversation in Nashville and the YearlyKos conference in Chicago, as one of a very few people who attended both events (though the National Education Association was a co-sponsor of both conferences).
Both events were well-attended, with probably 700 people in Nashville and 1500 (swelling to perhaps 2000 for the presidential candidate forum) in Chicago. They were pitched to very different audiences, with the DLC focusing on state and local elected officials (about 350 of whom showed up, from 45 states) and YKos billing itself as a bit of a netroots family reunion. Both events were very wonky on one level, with lots of workshops on a variety of policy and political topics. And in both Nashville and Chicago, there was plenty of Republican- and Bush-bashing; a sense of disdain for the horse-race/money-race coverage of the presidential campaign by the MSM; and a lot of optimism about Democratic prospects next year.
In terms of presidential preferences, there were no straw polls, but I’d guess that in Nashville the bulk of participants would lean towards Obama or Clinton (not sure which would actually lead), with Richardson, Edwards and Biden enjoying pockets of support. In Chicago, Obama and Edwards had the most visible support, but Clinton got a warmer welcome that most expected, and Richardson and Dodd clearly had support as well.
Neither event developed any sort of formal policy pronouncements or political manifestos. But in the workshop sessions, both dwelled on issues like global climate change, universal health coverage, and economic insecurity and inequality. The Nashville event, focused as it was on state and local electeds, didn’t have workshops on Iraq or national security issues (though there was one on homeland security), but during the public session, there was some talk of what might be described as a post-Iraq national security strategy. There was plenty of talk about Iraq in Chicago. But on the issues dividing Democrats (residual troop commitments and a funding cutoff strategy), the presidential forum was notably muted.
The major “tone” difference between the two conferences–aside from the natural excitement in Chicago over the presidential forum, and the frank disappointment in Nashville that the presidentials didn’t show up–was really about the nature of the fears underlying the general optimism going into 2008. In Nashville, the oft-expressed concern was about Democratic overconfidence, particularly in terms of the party’s credibility on national security, leading to an insufficient focus on swing voters and yet another close election. (This fear was articulated quite clearly today in a Washington Post op-ed by DLC Chairman Harold Ford, Jr., and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who spoke in Nashville). And in Chicago, the big fear (often linked to the FISA reauthorization which occurred, with significant Democratic support, the night before the presidential forum) was about Democratic temerity in the face of Republican efforts to once again play the “fear” card in 2008.
A subset of this difference in basic outlook towards the party’s problems is reflected in the general assumption made at each event about long-term Democratic strategy. In Nashville, the feeling was that Democrats needed to win big in 2008 and then “solve problems across party lines” in order to build a durable progressive majority. In Chicago, long-term Democratic prospects were most often linked to movement-building efforts, ranging from new media sophistication to mobilization of potential constituencies.
A final point of comparison, inevitably, is the extent to which these two Democratic gatherings fired bullets at each other.
In Nashville, there was plenty of grumbling about the presidentials tripping over each other to get to Chicago, balanced with observations that it actually made sense for them to do so, given the netroots’ importance in the nominating process. But the only “named” villain at the event (he was even rebutted by Bill Clinton) was, ironically, the New Republic’s Noam Scheiber, whose thank-you-now-go-away assessment of the DLC appeared in The New York Times the very day the conference began. It’s also worth mentioning that one of the featured speakers was Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who has been something of a netroots favorite for years.
In Chicago, I’m sure there was some DLC- and centrist-bashing going on in the various workshops, but it wasn’t terribly visible, and the general tenor was that the netroots represented all of the party, united in partisanship and a commitment to grassroots activism if not in ideology. New Dem types (e.g., Andrei Cherny, Ken Baer, Rob Shapiro, Austan Goolsbee, Gene Sperling) were sprinkled amongst the official speakers. There appeared to be a semi-conscious collective effort to ensure that Hillary Clinton got a respectful hearing at the presidential forum. Interestingly, forum co-moderator Joan McCarter did a post today listing some of the prepared questions that didn’t get asked, and one was to HRC about her feelings towards the DLC. But by the same token, Dennis Kucinich got booed for uttering one of the ancient Left intra-party arguments that “voters don’t think there’s much difference between the two parties.”
In the end, I came away from my Nashville-Chicago swing impressed more than ever by what unites Democrats against Republicans even among these two particularly different groups, and frustrated by the Dialogue of the Deaf that so often supplants healthy intra-party debate over real issues.
Self-conscious New Democrats need to understand that the netroots can no longer be dismissed as marginal, or unserious, or simply as a small group of people with a big internet megaphone. And they should also realize that there’s as much diversity of opinion in the netroots as in any other element of the party.
By the same token, netrooters should not let preconceptions about the DLC and its fellow-travelers blind them to what they are actually saying and doing. The spirit of partisanship in Nashville was very intense (viz. their extremely positive reaction to Drew Westen, the one speaker equally popular at both events). These are people who want Democrats to win very badly, and as Bill Clinton said there, the challenges the DLC helped him meet in 1992 are not irrelevant today. And though Markos Moulitsas did a post today mocking the “350 or so members” of the DLC, it’s worth remembering that these are elected officials who represent a lot of other Democrats and swing voters as well, and who have been largely ignored for many years by a DC-Centric national party.
In the end, if you eliminated the factional emblems in Nashville and Chicago and paid attention to the bottom line, there’s a lot of unity apparent on the surface and even underneath it. And attending both events gave me a better overall view of the current state of the debate among Democrats, and a renewed hope that it can be refocused on differences that actually matter instead of those that really don’t.