It's no surprise that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got a tough reception at Netroots Nation -- as bloggers asked about the Iraq War, impeachment and (of course) FISA. Pelosi passed the buck on all of these issues -- saying that she's let House Judiciary Chair John Conyers handle executive contempt, blamed Senate Democrats for selling out on FISA and said that only electing Barack Obama will get us out of Iraq. When Al Gore popped in to make a surprise appearance, the crowd gave a hero's welcome to the ex-Vice President -- posing a sharp contrast with Pelosi. Bloggers cheered Gore's ambitious environmental agenda to make the United States 100% free of fossil fuel energy by 2019. But nobody bothered to ask Gore why he didn't push for this 15 years ago when he could have done something about it. Meanwhile, Pelosi's excuses frustrated the audience -- but they each have an element of truth to them. On the other hand, if Pelosi says she "doesn't have the votes" in Congress to get what we want, she should start being more supportive of primary challenges that bloggers wage against bad Democrats.
"God bless the impatience of youth," said Pelosi as she kicked off the Convention's main event on Saturday morning. "That's what gives me hope. I share your frustration in not ending this War. We need to be persistent, relentless and unsatisfied at pushing us to where we should be. And there are only 107 days until the Election."
Everyone expected Pelosi would get a tough crowd, and about half a dozen demonstrators from Code Pink were there to heckle her about the war. But liberal bloggers aren't about direct-action street-level theater, preferring the tactic of asking hard-hitting questions that put politicians on the spot. Gina Cooper of Netroots Nation even warned attendees at the beginning that anyone who disrupted the forum would be ejected, and the crowd cheered.
At the forum, Pelosi was asked questions like: (a) is impeachment back on the table?; (b) if Karl Rove is still in contempt of Congress, will he be arrested?; (c) if the FISA bill was a compromise, what was the gain? and (d) why hasn't Congress ended the war?
For the most part, Pelosi passed the buck -- saying that she agreed with the frustration of bloggers, but blamed others for why no action has been taken. On the first two points, she deferred to House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers -- who is leading investigations of the Bush administration. "We passed a resolution of contempt on the House floor," she said, "and I'm proud that we got every Democrat to vote for it. But Mr. Conyers is in charge of the investigation, and we're in good hands with him."
On FISA, Pelosi blamed the Senate -- where 17 Democrats voted with all the Republicans -- for sending them a bad bill. "Our options were limited," she said. "It was a moment of taint. Was the final bill [which passed both houses] a bill that I would have written? No. Was it better than the Senate version that had passed? Yes."
Pelosi added that as House Speaker she has only had "two major regrets": (a) the Senate version of the FISA bill that they had to work with, and (b) failing to get 60 votes in the Senate to end the Iraq War. Later on in the forum, she added that the only way to end the war will be to elect President Barack Obama. Eventually, moderator Gina Cooper turned to Pelosi and said what was on a lot of peoples' minds: "it sounds like some of your colleagues must get with the program with the American people."
There's certainly truth to what Pelosi said: any effort to impeach Bush or Cheney will start at the Judiciary Committee, Democrats have a razor-thin majority in the Senate, and even voting to defund the war won't end it until a Democratic president brings the troops home. But while Pelosi says she is on our side, one conclusion we can draw is that she hasn't kept her colleagues in line. The netroots have always tried to hold bad Democrats accountable -- and in recent years have waged primary challenges against entrenched incumbents who vote the wrong way on issues. The bloggers could work with Pelosi.
But Pelosi has not generally supported these challengers, actively working against the netroots. For example, Pelosi held a fundraiser for Congressman Al Wynn -- while he was getting a primary challenge from netroots favorite Donna Edwards. Edwards won that election, and attended Netroots Nation as a newly minted Congresswoman. In what must have been an awkward moment, Pelosi acknowledged Edwards at the beginning of the forum.
It wasn't the first time that a powerful Democrat came to a netroots convention and faced a tough audience. But unlike Hillary Clinton (who at last year's Yearly Kos sarcastically mocked the crowd when they booed her), Pelosi kept her grace while saying much of what the bloggers didn't agree with. Whatever you think of her answers, she did not condescend.
While bloggers gave Pelosi a chilly reception, they enthusiastically cheered former Vice President Al Gore -- who made a surprise appearance during Pelosi's forum. "We have a historic climate crisis," said Gore. "It's connected to an economic crisis, and the national security threat it creates. Drilling oil we won't use for 15 years to deal with gas prices now is like responding to an attack from Afghanistan by invading another country."
Gore has always been a sentimental favorite of the netroots ("I feel right at home here," he said), and the crowd eagerly responded to his challenge to eliminate fossil fuel dependency by 2019. "I need your help," he said. "You seek to influence, and I respectfully ask for your help." And with only 11 years to get there, we don't have much time.
But nobody asked the former Vice President why he didn't agitate on these issues in the mid-1990's, when he was in a position to get things done. If we had started this 15 years ago, eliminating fossil fuel dependency would be far more doable. No doubt Gore is now using his "elder statesman" role to fight global warming -- but the Clinton-Gore administration was lackluster in responding to this climate crisis, such as reneging on their pledge to shut down an incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. When Gore ran for President in 2000, Friends of the Earth endorsed Bill Bradley in the Democratic primaries.
If the netroots insisted on giving Nancy Pelosi a hard time, why didn't they challenge Gore as well?
Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of BeyondChron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.