AUSTIN, Texas | Former Rep. Harold Ford Jr., Tennessee Democrat, ventured into the lion’s den Friday, telling liberal activists their differences with his centrist style are overstated and asking the “netroots” bloggers gathered here to suspend intraparty fighting until after the general election.
“Whatever differences there may be, … I don’t think they have any comparison to magnitude, caliber, character at all to the kind of differences we may have if Barack Obama‘s opponent in this presidential race wins,” Mr. Ford, the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, said to applause.
“I have great confidence that a president named Obama would be a whole lot different than a president named McCain.”
But Internet icon Markos Moulitsas, admired by the 2,000 gathered for the Netroots Nation conference inspired by his Daily Kos blog, demanded Democrats stand for their convictions, and issued a warning to politicians who voted for the Bush administration’s surveillance bill this month.
“In 2010, we’re going to have some Democrats we’re going to pay some visits to in primaries,” he said. “We’re going to keep pushing for an unapologetic Democratic Party that trusts in what it believes in and isn’t afraid to share that with the voters, that isn’t afraid to make distinctions with the Republican Party.”
Mr. Moulitsas, a veteran of the U.S. Army, said the netroots’ core issues resonate with everyone in America.
“We’re the mainstream … on issue after issue,” he said, naming health care and Iraq. “We are where the American people reside.”
He said the press has overplayed any “discontent” with the presumptive Democratic nominee. He said most of the netroots were frustrated with Mr. Obama’s support for the eavesdropping measure, but that he does not view that as “moving to the center.”
Actually, the Illinois senator has moved away from the center, Mr. Moulitsas argued, since “There was no popular support for this bill.”
Mr. Ford, of Tennessee, repeatedly told the crowd they had his “respect,” and noted that he and Mr. Moulitsas have worked together since agreeing last summer on TV’s “Meet the Press” to appear at each other’s conferences this year.
Mr. Ford said his group - which propelled Bill Clinton to power in the early 1990s - is sometimes “caricatured” as an inside-the-Beltway organization. He suggested that’s inaccurate and noted most DLC members are elected local leaders such as state legislators and county commissioners across the country.
“We can’t win without one another,” Mr. Ford said. “It takes both wings here to make the thing move … and allow for wins to happen.”
He told the crowd, “With all due respect, I am proud of my record in Congress,” and said while they may disagree on the surveillance measure, the party agrees on housing, universal health care and a “broader and new energy platform.”
He made a point to say he applauds the work of the netroots, but added, “I wish you’d not take so many shots at me personally.”
Some in the audience were antagonistic toward Mr. Ford during a question-and-answer session, and Mr. Moulitsas quickly steered the discussion back to friendlier territory.
When Mr. Ford defended his work as a Fox News analyst (he now works for NBC), some in the crowd hissed. He said Mr. Obama will need Republican voters to support him if he wants to become president.
But for the most part, it was all smiles as what had been billed as a “Texas shootout” ended.
It’s “more creepy when you have a married couple that doesn’t fight,” Mr. Moulitsas said, prompting the newly married Mr. Ford to chime in, “I’m going to use that line with my wife.”
Mr. Moulitsas said the netroots are looking for people to talk about their values as not left, center or right, but as “American values.”
“We could overlook disagreements on policy, but what we really do not like are Democrats who are afraid to be Democrats,” Mr. Moulitsas said. “We’re not looking for ideological purity.”
He added of elected leaders, “They work for us; we don’t work for them. … We pay their salary.”
Mr. Moulitsas noted he is from El Salvador and shared a stage with a moderator from Bangladesh and Mr. Ford, who is black.
“We are more and more looking like America while the other party looks like John McCain,” he said.
Also speaking at Netroots Nation were Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, favorites of the blogosphere after their 2004 presidential bids.
Mr. Clark, recently criticized by Republicans for saying that Mr. McCain getting shot down in Vietnam did not qualify him to be president, said he had been taken out of context. He didn’t elaborate that TV’s “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer actually posed the question to him and raised the issue of Mr. McCain’s military service, but he did say that he had been a victim of the right-wing “freak show.”
“This was a playbook operation by the right-wing freak machine. It’s the great freak show,” he said, recounting how a friend characterized the dust-up. “They take a statement, then they either take it out of context or distort it, then they blast it, then they criticize you and it becomes personal. They’re getting so good at it that they did all three steps in less than 12 hours, and you fought back.”
MoveOn.org, a Netroots Nation sponsor, came to Mr. Clark’s defense when he got criticism.
Mr. Dean on Thursday held a rally in the small town of Crawford, Texas, where President Bush has his ranch. It was one stop for the new DNC “Register for Change” bus that is embarking on a major voter registration drive in the South.
Mr. Dean won big cheers when talking about the Democratic 50-state strategy.
“We can win everywhere and that’s why we’re doing this,” he said. “Every state is going to have resources and no state will be lacking.”