A strange thing happened to me the day the House of Representatives voted to pass the Iraq-war-funding bill. Congresswoman Jane Harman of California called as the debate was taking place. "Look, I would love to have cast a vote against Bush on this," she told me. "We need a new strategy, and I hope we can force one in September. But I flew into Baghdad [with 150 young soldiers recently]. To vote against this bill was to vote against giving them the equipment... they need. I couldn't do that." I posted what Harman said on Swampland, the political blog at Time.com, along with my opinion that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had changed their positions and voted against the funding for the worst possible reason: presidential politics.
And then Harman changed her position. After we spoke, she voted against the funding. The next day, I was blasted by a number of left-wing bloggers: Klein screwed up! I had quoted Harman in the past tensecommon usage for politicians who know their words will appear after a vote takes place. That was sloppy and... suspicious! Proof that you just can't trust the mainstream media. On Eschaton, a blog that specializes in media bashing, I was given the coveted "Wanker of the Day" award. Eventually, Harman got wind of this and called, unbidden, to apologize for misleading me, saying I had quoted her correctly but she had changed her mind to reflect the sentiments of her constituents. I published her statement and still got hammered by bloggers and Swampland commenters for "stalking" Harman into an apology, for not checking her vote in the Congressional Record, for being a "water boy for the right wing" and many other riffs unfit to print.
This is not the first time this kind of free-range lunacy has been visited upon me. Indeed, it happens, oh, once a week to each of us who post on Swampland (Karen Tumulty, Jay Carney and Ana Marie Cox are the others). A reasonable reader might ask, Why are the left-wing bloggers attacking you? Aren't you pretty tough on the Bush Administration? Didn't you write a few months ago that George W. Bush would be remembered as one of the worst Presidents in history? And why on earth does any of this matter?
First, let me say that I really enjoy blogging. It's a brilliant format for keeping readers up to date on the things I care aboutand for exchanging information with them. I recently asked Swampland readers with military experience to comment on whether it was General David Petraeus' "duty" to tell the unvarnished truth about Iraq when he testifies on Capitol Hill in September. About a dozen readers responded with links to treatises about "duty" in various military journals. Furthermore, I've found that some great reporting takes place in the blogosphere: Juan Cole's Iraq updates are invaluable, Joshua Micah Marshall's Talking Points Memo did serious muckraking about the U.S. attorneys scandal, and Ezra Klein (no relation) is excellent on health care. I love linking to smart work by others, something you just can't do in a print column.
But the smart stuff is being drowned out by a fierce, bullying, often witless tone of intolerance that has overtaken the left-wing sector of the blogosphere. Anyone who doesn't move in lockstep with the most extreme voices is savaged and ridiculedespecially people like me who often agree with the liberal position but sometimes disagree and are therefore considered traitorously unreliable. Some of this is understandable: the left-liberals in the blogosphere are merely aping the odious, disdainfuland politically successfultone that right-wing radio talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh pioneered. They are also justifiably furious at a Bush White House that has specialized in big lies and smear tactics.
And that is precisely the danger here. Fury begets fury. Poison from the right-wing talk shows seeped into the Republican Party's bloodstream and sent that party off the deep end. Limbaugh's showwhere Dick Cheney frequently expatiateshas become the voice of the Republican establishment. The same could happen to the Democrats. The spitballs aimed at me don't matter much. The spitballs aimed at Harman, Clinton and Obama are another story. Despite their votes, each of those politicians believes the war must be funded. (Obama even said so in his statement explaining his vote.) Each knows, as Senator Jim Webb has said repeatedly, that we must be more careful getting out of Iraq than we were getting in. But they allowed themselves to be bullied into a more simplistic, more extreme position. Why? Partly because they fear the power of the bloggers to set the debate and raise money against them. They may be rightin the short (primary election) term; Harman faced a challenge from the left in 2006. In the long term, however, kowtowing to extremists is exactly the opposite of what this country is looking for after the lethal radicalism of the Bush Administration.