The last time thousands of progressive activists and left-leaning bloggers came together for their annual Netroots Nation conference, Democrats controlled Washington. Much of the focus was on pushing the party — and President Obama — further to the left, to stand up for things like the public option, an end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the value of government spending to fix the economy.
A year later, with the Republicans firmly in control of the House and the 2012 presidential cycle underway, the focus is expected to be much the same. Except there’s an expediency: The only way Democrats are going to win back what they lost and keep what they have, organizers and participants in this year’s conference say, is to get closer to their progressive roots.
The conference kicks off Thursday morning in Minneapolis. Organizers say it will be the largest Netroots Nation on record, with more than 2,200 in attendance. Speakers include Minnesota’s own Sen. Al Franken (D), former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Netroots favorite Howard Dean. The White House will also be represented, with Obama communications director Dan Pfeiffer addressing the crowd Friday morning.
Participants told TPM they expected the crowd to be “respectful” of Pfeiffer, but they also made it clear he’s not addressing a friendly crowd.
“He’s got some hard questions to answer,” Netroots executive director Raven Brooks told TPM. “It’s not going to be a bunch of softballs lobbed at him.”
Brooks said participants will likely press Pfeiffer on Obama campaign promises they feel he hasn’t delivered on and frustrations they have over the administration’s compromises on the Bush tax cuts and other matters that have left progressives frustrated.
Chief among those concerns is the economy. Progressives have lamented Obama’s focus on deficits and debt rather than stimulus to create new jobs. Pfeiffer can expect to hear and earful about that one.
“We will be out there fighting Republicans and we’re planning to fight hard for the people who work for a living in this country and the people who are trying to get their piece of the American dream and who haven’t been able to get that lately. Those people are also called Democratic voters,” said Levana Layendecker, communications director for Democracy for America, a progressive advocacy group founded out of the remains of Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.
“What we want is for the White House to be with us in this fight.”
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), whose district includes Minneapolis and — this weekend, anyway — the epicenter of liberal politics in America, agreed. Despite his position in the Democratic minority in the House, he said Netroots needs to keep the pressure on his party to lean left whenever possible.
“My goal is to get the focus on jobs,” Ellison said. He’s a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and will make Netroots the first stop on his caucus’ nationwide tour this summer aimed at turning attention away from the deficit and back toward pro-growth spending.
“I don’t think we can’t do anything because the Republicans are in office,” Ellison said, adding, “I don’t really care about unifying behind a bunch of policies that I don’t think are going to get people employed. I want to talk about what really matters: food on the table, you know what I mean?”
Republicans will get some attention at Netroots; conservative bloggers are holding their own conference, RightOnline, down the street from Netroots in Minneapolis. Their agenda is certain to come up at Netroots.
“There will likely be two main thrusts of the conference: pushing back hard against right-wing craziness like ending Medicare and union busting,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, “while also pushing Democrats to go on offense and stop preemptively caving before the fight.”
Brooks said much of the talk at this year’s Netroots won’t even be about moving Democrats to the left, but rather shedding them all together as a means to a progressive political end.
“We’re really talking about what we can do as individual activists to create change and not rely so much on our elected leaders and on actually working on elections as the means to primarily enacting those changes,” he said. “That’s sort of been the game with the Netroots since ‘03-‘04, and after we had all these majorities, after ‘08, it certainly hasn’t bought us a whole lot.”