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Bloggers Back Obama's Agenda, Not His Strategy (From Netroots Nation)

09/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's cool to be a liberal blogger again. Just ask Bill Clinton.

Speaking to the fourth annual Netroots Nation convention in Pittsburgh, where a slew of bloggers, online activists and traditional pols gathered this weekend, the former President heralded attendees for elevating "public discourse" and pushing their agenda with transparency and partisan vigor.

Bloggers take sides, Clinton said appreciatively, and they "don't have to pretend" that they are neutral. The line not only celebrated a netroots ethic -- it implicitly rebuked the traditional media's claim to disinterested objectivity. Heated media criticism is a passion that the blogosphere and The Big Dog have always shared. On domestic policy, by contrast, there are more disagreements. Yet Clinton's appearance resonated more for his stature in the party than where he falls on the progressive axis. Campaign season has given way to an era of Democratic governance, when volunteer armies and small donors matter less, but the netroots can still draw some of the most powerful people in politics. The current White House sent one if its most sought-after emissaries, senior adviser and longtime Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett, for a keynote appearance. And that's only counting Democrats.

Netroots Nation also drew a rather unlikely guest: a life-long Republican senator who recently joined the Democratic Party because, as he told the bloggers, he "has a good job" and wants to keep it. Arlen Specter, the resilient, 79-year-old pol who has now managed to seriously rile the base of both political parties, took questions at a session focusing on his 2010 primary. I co-moderated the event, with Pennsylvania blogger Susie Madrak, and a companion session for his opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak.

Specter made a blunt, detailed and explicit case for netroots support. He ticked off his putative credentials, from current policies (pro-choice, public option, labor voting) to current alliances (Obama, Biden) to great moments in progressive pushback (voting down Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination) to, yes, his ginger embrace of new technology. In under an hour, Specter asked attendees to join his text message program, huddled with bloggers so they could watch him make a promised cell phone call Sen. Chuck Grassley -- to rebut misinformation about health care -- and Specter capped it off with by tweeting , typo and all, the happenings in real-time: "Called Senator Grassley to tell him to stop speading [sic] myths about health care reform and imaginary 'death panels.'"

While those moves could have been empty gimmickry -- one politician simulates calling out another without actual dialogue -- the 75-year-old Iowa senator also tweets. Back in June, Grassley made waves by tweeting that President Obama had "nerve" to chide Congress' timetable on health care when his colleagues were "even workinWKEND" -- suggesting his missives are drafted without staff filtering. And just one hour after Specter's salvo, Grassley packed a stern riposte into 140 characters:

"Specter got it all wrong that I ever used words 'death boards.' Even liberal press never accused me of that. So change ur last Tweet Arlen"

The fast fight drew coverage from ABC, MSNBC, Politico, The Hill, and UPI, among others, while the satirical blog Wonkette appraised the human costs: "Evil Liberal Bloggers Strain Grassley, Specter Friendship, On Twitter."

Sure, the messages are short and the stakes may seem small. Yet the exchange also demonstrates the utility of new media politics. Beyond his "position" on health care reform, I asked Specter about countering misinformation from his former allies because, once again, a big political debate has been hijacked by dishonest operatives, enabled by a (mostly) complicit press corps. In other words, the lies may count more than the votes. And bloggers in the audience yelled out for Specter to contact Grassley immediately based on two basic premises: our representatives should deal in public, and fact-checking is a communal, political activity that cannot be left to media gatekeepers.

As it happens, governing in the Obama era is starting to feel more like another desperate, frantic election campaign, where overheated symbols substitute for genuine policy discourse and feckless referees grant equal time to lies and facts alike. So it's really no wonder liberal bloggers are back. We need them.

Update: Blogger Marcy Wheeler is following up on Specter's outreach to Grassley.

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Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this column first appeared.