John Edwards Takes One For The Netroots

An inside politics/inside blogosphere brouhaha ended today with a statement from Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards that he would not fire two campaign staffers over "offensive" comments written on their personal-but-prominent liberal blogs. Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon and Melissa McEwan of Shakespeare's Sister had been hired to head Edwards' blogging and netroots outreach efforts, but came under attack from right-wingers like Michelle Malkin and others for prior posts containing foul and offensive language. And in recent days Bill Donohue of the Catholic League had been making the rounds of conservative talk shows, loudly demanding the bloggers' scalps, accusing them of anti-Catholic rhetoric.

I'm sure the righties are uniformly disappointed that Edwards didn't buckle under their cynical attacks -- that's what they've come to expect from Democrats -- but reaction from the left has been mixed. The Stranger's Erica Barnett, writing on her personal blog, is not alone in wishing that Edwards had defended Marcotte and McEwan more decisively and aggressively:

"Yes, Edwards ultimately made the right choice. But I'm not impressed by the way he initially caved under pressure. If right-wing bigots have this much clout over Edwards (and Edwards expressed no concerns about either blogger whatsoever until the wingers complained, so don't tell me it was a sudden, unrelated revelation), I'm no longer sure he's the kind of candidate I can support."

I'm no Edwards partisan, but I do not share Barnett's disappointment. Rather, I think that when viewed in context, Edwards' actions come off bolder and more significant than they first appear.

Edwards is not a "netroots candidate." He is a creature of the D.C. political establishment, and as such has surrounded himself with advisors drawn from the consultancy class that Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong have targeted as the primary obstacle to progressive ascension in their book "Crashing the Gates." You can be sure that risk-adverse advisors -- who fear hand-to-hand combat with the far-right almost as much as they fear the growing influence of the progressive netroots -- strongly urged Edwards to dump Marcotte and McEwan. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if yesterday's inaccurate firing story had been leaked by Edwards advisors seeking to force his hand.

In that context, Edwards decision to ignore the "safe" advice is not only a measure of his loyalty towards staffers who rearranged their lives to join his campaign, but an acknowledgment of a changing political landscape in which grassroots political activists are playing a larger role in turning out the vote and shaping public opinion. The conventional wisdom of the Democratic political establishment would have had Edwards jettison Marcotte and McEwan "for the good of the campaign." The fact that it was a conventional establishment politician who rejected this wisdom is significant in itself.

Some seem disappointed by Edwards lack of forcefulness, but considering his political background and previous campaigns, I view Edwards defense of Marcotte and McEwan -- however tempered -- as a welcome departure from Democratic establishment business as usual. While not exactly courageous, it does show growth.

Furthermore, we cannot emphasize enough the significance of this incident in regards to what it portends for other campaigns and the blogosphere in general. Malkin/Donohue et al had intended to lower the bar on public discourse to the point where no liberal blogger who had ever put forth a controversial opinion or dabbled in the joys of foul and abusive language could seek gainful employment again. Had Edwards fired Marcotte and McEwan for language they had previously used on their own personal blogs, the far-righties and their media surrogates would have demanded that the other Democratic candidates fire their foul-mouthed bloggers too. The witch hunt would have been on, and once they had cleared the political establishment of us "hate-talking" lefties, the right's attention would surely turn towards the private sector.

Malkin herself is a bile-spewing fascist who defends the Japanese internment and lionizes Sen. Joe McCarthy and his anti-democratic blacklists. This was never about Marcotte and McEwan. It was about silencing her political enemies. For his part Donohue now promises a "nationwide public relations blitz" against Edwards, attacking him for his religious "bigotry"... this from a man who freely laces his own public statements with anti-semitic rhetoric.

By standing up to Malkin and Donohue when it would have been much easier to cave, Edwards has decided to take a blow on behalf of a nascent progressive netroots movement most establishment Democrats neither fully understand nor appreciate. Whether or not he is my candidate, this blogger is going to stand up for Edwards in return.

[Read more from David Goldstein at HorsesAss.org]