Friday, August 14, 2009

Netroots Nation surprises

I've been at the annual Netroots Nation convention in Pittsburgh the last two days. I just got back from a MoveOn.org party in downtown Pittsburgh. They had a DJ playing rock music in an open-air court next to a nightclub. And hallelujah praise Vishnu, most of the stuff they were playing were not 60s geezer rock. They did slip up a couple of times, though. One of them was "My Generation", the ultimate Boomer narcissism song. But at least there hasn't been a lot of Woodstock nostalgia around here.

In fact, while we were waiting for Bill Clinton's keynote speech on Thursday, I was sitting next to a student from one of the local universities. She had heard Clinton speak on her campus and was already a big fan. We were talking about his speeches and I recalled the time at the 1988 Democratic Convention when he gave such a long keynote speech that it became a legend. I could see that this didn't seem to register any spark of recognition with her. Then I realized I was talking about something that happened before she was born. Well, time goes on. Shoot, I can barely remember that far back myself. Didn't we invade some Central American country around that time to get rid of their WMDs or something?

Anyway, Clinton's keynote here was a big hit. The nine speakers that were on before him were a bit much. If there had been one more, people would have probably started openly groaning. But the Big Dog was a big hit. He got standing ovations at the start and at the last. He was hoarse, and he didn't really hit his stride until somebody stood up and interrupted him shouting something about "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA, to the political junkies). He made a joke about the Tea Partiers disrupting meetings and then he addressed the question. He basically said he thought both of those things stunk and he would love to see them repealed. But he said at the time that Congress was about to cram something much worse through and that he agreed to those to prevent stuff even worse from going through.

That kind of fit in with his general message, which was that Dems may have to settle for less than they won't some times. This wasn't really a message that a crowd of Democratic activists was especially going to like. But he stressed that he supported the public option in the health care reform. And his biggest point was that it was "imperative" to get health care reform passed. And he talked a lot about how important it was to move forward on fighting global warming and the "Copenhagen process". And in general how important it is for the Democratic base to keep the pressure on Obama and the Congress to get things right. He thinks this could well be the beginning of a long period of progressive reform, because he thinks a majority now is "communitarian in its convictions". He said, "I've been waiting 40 years for this moment."

He of course talked a long time. He went into some detail about the rise and dominance of the conservative movement. He referred at one point to "President Nixon, who was actually a Communist compared to most people who came after him."

One of the biggest surprises to me was when Arlen Specter spoke, followed by Joe Sestak, a Congressman who is running against Specter in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary next year. This crowd was not particularly warm toward Specter, who was even in his presentation Saturday was pretty clear that he had switched parties out of opportunism. And I think Specter is just a rightwing a-hole and was ready to see Harry Reid kicked out as Majority Leader because he accepted Specter so easily into the Party. But I've got to say I was impressed with how effective he was in his presentation. (I'm being a theater critic here like our airhead pundits.) He's an old-fashioned (he's around 80 so he's also literally old) here's-how-I-bring-home-the-bacon politician. So he ticked off a long list of positions he had taken that activist Democrats were likely to favor. He got a big round of applause when he bragged that he had done more town halls than any other member of Congress this month and had been out there facing down the Republican mobs of nasty white people (he did quite put it that way) in defense of Obama's health care plan. When he saw that went over well, he worked it in a couple of more times. Including one last time at the end when the moderator thanked him for coming to speak before a crowd with whom he wasn't especially popular. He said, oh, I've appeared before much tougher crowds recently.

During his speech, Specter mentioned he was on good terms with Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican who occasionally grunts about being "bipartisan" but is holding up the bill. Someone from the audience mentioned that Grassley had supported Palin's "death panels" lie. Specter had just dismissed that particular crackpot lie, saying the provisions on end-of-life counseling were "pure as ivory snow". So Specter said he would call Grassley and set him straight on that. The questioner asked how would we know if he had done it, and Specter said he would call Grassley right after the meeting and that the questioner could come watch him place the call. And sure enough, after his speech, a few audience members walked back-stage, I assume to watch him call.

Joe Sestak came over very well. To me, it would be a no-brainer pick for Sestak. He's a real Democrat and Specter is just a rightwing jerk. But he's going to have a hard run again Specter, I would guess, even though Specter switched parties after knifing the Dems over and over for years.

The other surprise was at a panel on Democratic bloggers and unions. Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers Union, was one of the panelists, and so was Tula Connell, who edits the AFL-CIO's blog, which is pretty darn good. Gerard said that he sees the progressive bloggers as the "front line" of progressive change right now. I'm sure he wasn't just talking about the writing. The Dem blogs raise a s**tload of money for candidates. He also said that the blogosphere is now central in union communications, because more of their members send blogs for information rather than local or national newspaper. Connell basically said the same thing, saying the AFL-CIO now tries to get their message into the blogosphere more than into mainstream media. She even said, "The progressive netroots is the media as far as we are concerned."

And if Gerard's presentation is any measure, the Steelworkers have seriously gotten religion about green business. They were prominently talking about the "Blue Green alliance", which they see as a reality already. Their focus is making sure that the United States stays competitive in green industry, like the manufacture of blades for windmills.

But I was most surprised at the extent to which they were dissing the legacy media as useless from labor's point of view.

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