The Blogfather

Netroots guru Jerome Armstrong says he's a freethinking pragmatist. But lefty bloggers say his backing of centrist Mark Warner shows he's become just another political consultant.

Published May 31, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

Jerome Armstrong, aka "The Blogfather," greeted me recently in the office of former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's political action committee, a block of brick and glass that overlooks the Potomac River in old-town Alexandria. Long before he helped pioneer the netroots movement by launching the blog MyDD in 2001, Armstrong served two tours with the Peace Corps, in Costa Rica and Sierra Leone, and was arrested repeatedly at protests with EarthFirst! and Greenpeace. He then spent a year and a half at Buddhist monasteries, meditating sometimes for 14 hours a day. It's an odd résumé that has left him with a calm, almost Zen-like demeanor, a rare feature for a political consultant in the overcaffeinated world of presidential politics. Shunting the traditional preppy blazer and tie, he wore short sleeves and dun-colored Levis.

But then Armstrong, 42, bills himself as a different kind of consultant, an online insurgent who, with Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, aka Kos, is leading "a bloodless coup" in national politics. "We are at the beginning of a comprehensive reformation of the Democratic Party -- driven by committed progressive outsiders," Armstrong and Moulitsas write in their recent book, "Crashing the Gate," which sold 5,000 copies online before it was even published. Something is certainly happening. Guest blogging at DailyKos, which gets about 4.5 million page views a week, has become a rite of passage for Democratic bigwigs, people like John Kerry, Russ Feingold, Elizabeth Edwards (under a pseudonym) and Nancy Pelosi. Many of Armstrong's former blogging pupils, who are known by critics as the "Blog Mafia," have been recruited to work for 2006 House and Senate campaigns as varied as those of Connecticut's Ned Lamont, New Jersey's Bob Menendez and Ohio's Sherrod Brown. And next week, roughly 1,000 blog faithful are set to descend on Las Vegas for a four-day conference with the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, party chairman Howard Dean, and at least three presidential hopefuls.

Armstrong, for his part, is taking it all in stride. After shaking my hand, he led me to a Thai restaurant down the block, where he sat me down to explain why Washington insiders have the wrong idea about liberal blogs. "One of the misperceptions is that it is a bunch of young kids," Armstrong began, looking a decade younger than his age, with short hair and blue-gray eyes. Another mistake, he said, is the perception that bloggers are left-wing enforcers of liberal orthodoxy, peddlers of what the New Republic has dubbed a "new Stalinist aesthetic." "The blog world is not really ideological," Armstrong contended, between bites of curried tofu. "We are pragmatic. It's not about grandstanding, and saying this is the ideal way to go."

Of course, the conventional wisdom in Washington is quite the opposite. Old-line Democratic consultants and pollsters see the netroots as an alarmist and irrational force, an emotive mob that eagerly calls for the censure of President Bush, opposes bipartisan cooperation, and demands an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq -- positions they describe as hazardous for Democrats at the polls. "The trick will be to harness their energy and their money without looking like you are a captive to the activist left," the Democratic consultant Steve Elmendorf said in a January Washington Post article headlined "Blogs Attack From Left as Democrats Reach for Center." For his part, Bruce Reed, the president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, cautions that the enthusiasm of liberal blogs sometimes overlooks the real-world challenge of building a majority party. "Anger and opposition are more effective in uniting a caucus than they are in winning an argument or an election," he told me.

But that caricature largely misses activists like Armstrong, who are fiercely partisan but not radically left-wing. Since May of 2005, he has been working on the undeclared presidential campaign of Mark Warner, a centrist Democrat more in the mold of Hillary Clinton or Evan Bayh than Russ Feingold, the netroots' favorite. Warner joins most prominent Democrats in rejecting calls for the censure of Bush. He has supported parental notification for abortion and refused to propose a date for withdrawal from Iraq. He is also, like Clinton and Bayh, aligned with the DLC, the centrist brain trust behind Bill Clinton's "New Democrat" campaign in 1992 and a vocal opponent of Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. "He has both been sharing ideas and getting ideas from the DLC leadership for many years," said Ellen Qualls, Warner's spokeswoman, adding that Warner attended a DLC book party earlier this month. "Is that the sum total of his record or his rhetoric? No."

Even with the DLC ties, Armstrong, who is employed by Warner's Forward Together PAC, has been remarkably effective in getting his boss a welcoming reception on key sites like DailyKos and MyDD. In national newspaper interviews and Op-Eds, Moulitsas regularly trumpets Warner as a favored 2008 contender, along with Feingold, giving the governor the hip sheen of a rising Internet populist. Armstrong has gone so far as to post Warner's picture in a cover box on MyDD, a space that features famous liberal leaders like Thurgood Marshall and Bill Clinton. Inside the Warner campaign, Armstrong's success has earned him the nickname "Ambassador of Kwan," a nod to the adrenaline-filled sports agent in the film "Jerry Maguire." "I think you can argue that the Net and the population online has sort of matured, beyond the initial -- call them ultra-partisans that were with Dean," Armstrong told me. "The spectrum of people, as the number increases, grows to reflect the Democratic Party online."

Such pronouncements have outraged a few liberal bloggers, who see Warner's middle-way pragmatism as just another version of the Democrat lite, which they blame for the conservative takeover of government. In a recent post on his blog, Bob Brigham, a former employee of Armstrong and former blogger on Swing State Project, wrote that the netroots would never unite around a candidate associated with the DLC. "Hiring a netroots coordinator to talk at bloggers while using the DLC content isn't going to get a candidate anywhere," he argued in a reference to Warner and Armstrong. "What is changing about Democratic Party politics isn't just the container, but the content." It is a debate that has quickly become personal. In the comments section of several blogs, readers have charged that Armstrong has traded on his reputation -- and his friendship with Moulitsas and other bloggers at MyDD -- to further his political consulting business. Much of the bad blood can be traced back to the recent flameout of Paul Hackett's Senate campaign in Ohio. Hackett, a dashing Iraq war veteran, burst on the scene in 2005 when he attempted to win an open House seat in a special election, immediately becoming an Internet cause célèbre. In a matter of weeks, bloggers raised him about $500,000 online from nearly 9,000 donors. Though he narrowly lost the House race, Hackett's online support continued into the fall as he explored a run for the Senate seat held by Republican Mike DeWine.

The online unity was shattered, however, in October when Sherrod Brown, an outspokenly liberal seven-term congressman from Ohio, announced that he would run for the seat. Armstrong, who had been working as a consultant for Brown, encouraged an online rebellion against Hackett. Before long, Moulitsas and other bloggers had abandoned their once-favorite son, arguing, along with Democratic Party leaders, that Brown was more electable. In one post,, on Oct. 6, Moulitsas wrote, "It might be a good idea for Hackett to stand down." This shocked many readers who had cheered another Kos post just two days earlier, in which Moulitsas seemed to endorse Hackett in a race against Brown. "Give me an Iraq vet over a career politician," he wrote.

"It looked like Jerome and Markos were using their big-box blogs to steamroll into Ohio," said Russell Hughlock, aka Pounder, an electrical engineer who runs the BuckeyeStateBlog. "A lot of people left Kos ... because they got pissed."

Moulitsas told me that both of his posts were, in fact, consistent, and that he had never changed his mind. "One of them spoke from the heart. The other spoke from the brain," he said, explaining that he, reluctantly, concluded Hackett couldn't win the Senate seat. "I would rather have Paul Hackett in the Senate."

Armstrong's friendship with Moulitsas, whose Web site attracts more traffic than the next three largest liberal blogs combined, is the topic of extensive discussion on DailyKos and other sites. The pair's friendship dates back to 2002, and the early days of the Dean campaign, when Moulitsas began blogging for Armstrong's MyDD, the home page for many of Dean's early supporters. In addition to the Hackett posts, bloggers have wondered if Armstrong's work for Warner caused Moulitsas to abandon his once ferocious campaign to shame any Democrat who associated with the DLC. "We need to make the DLC radioactive," Kos wrote in August 2005. "No calls for a truce will be brooked."

Moulitsas says he does not identify Warner with the DLC, especially when compared to other prospective presidential candidates. As for the lack of recent rants against the organization, he says he no longer rails against the DLC because he does not want to raise its profile. "I realized that the more I talked about them the more relevant they became," he said. "That was my realization last summer." As for his friendship with Armstrong, Moulitsas makes no apologies. "There is no doubt that Jerome impacts my thinking and my thinking impacts his," he said. "The fact is that Jerome and I talk a lot."

For his part, Armstrong says Moulitsas is like him, a free-thinking pragmatist. "I see myself as my own brand," Armstrong told me. "I have been aligned with candidates before that he has not supported."

Still, less than three years out from the presidential election, the netroots has grown large enough, and influential enough, to begin to cleave along ideological and pragmatic lines, as Internet activists debate the best way forward. "They are the agenda setters for the agenda setters," observes Michael Cornfield, a political scientist at George Washington University who studies political blogs. Already, nascent presidential campaigns are watching Warner's use of Armstrong very closely, making lists of the small number of liberal bloggers whose opinions carry weight among their peers. "They are a new class of consultants," says one Democratic strategist who is preparing a 2008 presidential campaign.

There is a terrific irony to the new power that bloggers like Moulitsas and Armstrong have inherited. In "Crashing the Gate," they complain about the incestuous, "Mafia-like" insularity of the Democratic consultants who rule Washington, often shifting between positions in the party and lucrative consulting contracts. Top bloggers now find themselves facing similar -- albeit difficult to prove -- accusations of back-scratching. "They've evolved as any other medium evolves," says Ohio's Hackett, who claims no hard feelings against Armstrong or Moulitsas. "They also learned how wonderful it is to make some money. Is it a compromise? Is it wrong? I don't think it is any of the above. If they can make more money taking sides, God bless them."

In many ways, the egalitarian structure of the Internet is sure to moderate the power of any single blogger. "I think there is a lot of loyalty out there. Jerome helped so many of us out. He made so much of what is out there possible," said Brigham. But Brigham also believes that Armstrong's connections and significant talents will not be able to turn Mark Warner into a netroots darling. He points to the latest DailyKos online poll -- an admittedly unscientific sample. Since November, when Warner helped elect his chosen successor in Virginia, the percentage of Kos readers who support his candidacy has declined from 14 to 10 percent. Meanwhile, the liberal populist Russ Feingold has taken off, rising from 19 percent to 44 percent of respondents. In contrast to Warner, Feingold's political populism, both rebellious and risky by Washington standards, has found a natural home among the blogs. But the campaign lacks any prominent netroots coordinator, a fact that is likely to change as 2008 approaches. In the meantime, the Feingold camp has acquired a poor reputation among some bloggers. "They are just impossible to work with," says one popular Democratic blogger, who otherwise likes Feingold. "That is not just my observation, that is everybody I know who has tried to work with them."

Other candidates have taken different early Internet approaches, working outside the glare of the big blogs. Clinton has hired Josh Ross, a 2004 Kerry campaign veteran at Mayfield Strategy Group, to help her build up her e-mail lists and Web site, while Kerry has similarly focused on maintaining his 2004 presidential campaign e-mail list. Tom Vilsack, the governor of Iowa, has been working with the consulting firm Blue State Digital, meeting with small groups of local bloggers in Iowa and South Carolina. Former Sen. John Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, is in close contact with bloggers on behalf of her husband's presidential ambitions.

In his own straightforward fashion, Armstrong says he has no illusions that Warner can win over online activists just by hiring a fancy consultant. "It is a very dynamic landscape, and it is changing all the time," he told me in a phone call several weeks after the Thai lunch. "You can lose credibility, too. That is not a given right, just because you are a longtime blogger." Warner, he said, has been working hard to integrate the Internet into the inner workings of the campaigns, producing regular Web videos and meeting with bloggers across the country. Armstrong, meanwhile, has decided to restrict his own blogging to his boss's Web site, so as not to attract charges of bias.

Next week, Warner will be given another opportunity in Las Vegas, at YearlyKos, the first national liberal blogger convention. According to the schedule, Warner is the only presumptive presidential candidate who is scheduled to address the entire convention, as a speaker at the Saturday lunch. He will appear in person, without any bells or whistles, without online video streams or blog endorsements. Just like politicians of old, he will have to take his message directly to the people.

This story has been changed since it was originally published.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

MORE FROM Michael Scherer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Howard Dean