Where Was Hillary?

CEDAR RAPIDS, IA - JULY 17:  Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to guests
CEDAR RAPIDS, IA - JULY 17: Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to guests at the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Dinner on July 17, 2015 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. All five democratic candidates who are seeking the partys nomination for president appeared at the event. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This is going to be a column about Netroots Nation, who showed up and who didn't, and what happened that got everyone talking. But before we get to all of that, I'm going to go off on a tangent and tell a personal story. Hey, it's my first day back, and things are still a bit foggy, so you'll have to bear with me for a bit.

If I had to slap a headline on my travels to and from the Netroots conference in Phoenix, I'd have to use: "Disaster Follows In My Wake." I was coming from Northern California, and I drove a new route (for me) across the desert. Part of it included driving on a very short stretch of Interstate 15, near San Bernardino. Then I hooked up with I-10 and took it all the way across the Arizona border and into Phoenix. Before I got home, a wildfire actually burned up cars and semis on that stretch of I-15, and a bridge collapsed on I-10 near the border, taking out a major Interstate until they can rebuild the entire bridge. While I was there, it rained in Phoenix, in the Valley of the Sun -- a hard enough thunderstorm to be called a "monsoon" by the locals. Coming back (luckily, we took a different route to get back), we got rained on in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Now, I've been rained on before in Death Valley, but that was something like two minutes of a few tiny drops. This was a whole different story. It was pouring cats and dogs when we drove through Barstow, and going down the mountain pass into Tehachapi it rained so hard the freeway slowed to about 40 miles per hour. In July. I have no idea what to make of all this, but had to toss out my own personal travel story before addressing the convention itself, because as you can see it wasn't exactly a boring trip.

As for the Netroots Nation convention itself, the most notable thing was that two Democratic candidates for president showed up, and three did not. Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley were both on hand to court Lefties, but I had to wonder where Hillary Clinton was. Lincoln Chafee seems to barely be running, so it's easy to see why he might not have had the cash on hand for a plane ticket. Jim Webb seems to only be courting Southern white voters, so he may have made a conscious decision to snub Netroots. But Hillary's absence was indeed notable.

O'Malley and Sanders appeared in what was ostensibly supposed to be a "candidates' forum," but in actuality turned into a test of "can you handle hecklers?" O'Malley and Sanders both coped with the protesters to some extent, but the real loser was the host. Jose Antonio Vargas just lost complete control of the proceedings, and instead let the event become totally hijacked.

To be fair, I don't know what I would have done differently, had I been up there attempting to moderate a very vocal debate. The protestors themselves had more fun chanting then taking advantage of a rare situation -- a golden opportunity to ask pointed questions of two candidates for president. The protestors didn't really want to hear anything either man had to say, and instead spent most of their time and energy trying to shout the candidates down when they tried to speak.

This being a Lefty convention, security was of course not called to remove the protestors (which would likely have happened to them in just about any other setting, I should point out). Instead, their spokesperson was invited up on stage and given a microphone. O'Malley had the majority of his time co-opted by the 15-minute speech by the spokesperson which followed. O'Malley then royally stepped in it by saying "Black lives matter" and for some reason then felt compelled to add "White lives matter." You could hear an audible groan in the room when he said this (and repeated it, for emphasis). O'Malley did try to actually debate the protestors, but soon learned that they didn't want a discussion at all, since they immediately shouted down anything he tried to say.

Sanders handled things differently. After O'Malley left, Sanders was also interrupted by chanting. Sanders tried to answer the protestors a few times, but soon realized the futility of doing so, and instead just shouted them down by addressing the rest of the audience who had come to hear the candidates speak. The protestors were loud, but Sanders had amplification on his side, since he had a microphone. Sanders did fashion his remarks to answer the issues the protestors were raising, and laid out his own extensive record of championing civil rights before telling the audience what he'd do to change things as president.

Now, Bernie Sanders was around in the 1960s. He's seen protests aplenty. And my guess is that he's also no stranger to Lefties bickering among themselves. There certainly were a lot of splinter groups struggling with splinter groups back then. As there are now (remember the Occupy Wall Street general assemblies?). So Sanders didn't give the same deer-in-the-headlights performance that O'Malley did -- but speaking to various people afterwards, Sanders did come across to some as too forceful, by basically ignoring the protestors for much of his time.

Audience reactions were mixed in general. Some even tried to shout down the protestors with "Let him speak!" chants. Some thought the protest was great street theater. But most of the people I talked to showed at least some degree of exasperation with the protestors, and felt they had wasted an opportunity to have a real conversation. Some thought O'Malley handled it better, some thought Sanders did.

Many, like me, wondered where Hillary was. Hillary Clinton successfully avoided having to face Lefty hecklers. That's likely why she didn't show up. Even so, Hillary's got a very large bridge to build with progressives, many of whom view her with outright suspicion (or worse). Hillary's going to need some energy and excitement from progressives if she's going to turn out enough voters to become president. So far, she's falling short. I barely heard her name mentioned during the entire conference, in fact. That should be troubling to the Clinton campaign, but they calculated that avoiding getting heckled (or booed) was more important.

Granted, even if there hadn't been protestors for Sanders and O'Malley, Clinton likely would have gotten some very vocal feedback from the crowd in one way or another (and on more than one issue). And yes, there would have been video to run under "Clinton Booed By Lefties!" headlines. But sooner or later, Clinton's got to make her case in front of skeptical progressive crowds. That's the only way she can convince any segment of them to get excited about her campaign in any way. Right now, Clinton seems to be running on her 2008 "Inevitability" playbook. She's content to answer protestors on Facebook, days after the event, rather than show up in person. She's basically running as a general election candidate, since she figures she's got the primaries already sewn up. Maybe she'll show up to Netroots 2016, after all the primaries are over.

Or maybe she won't. Bernie Sanders pulled in over 11,000 people to a rally right after Netroots Nation ended. The doubters said he only spoke to such large crowds in liberal university towns, but this was in the middle of the biggest city in a very red state. Lefties are indeed excited about the 2016 presidential race, but right now they're not volunteering for Hillary. They're flocking to Bernie instead.


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