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January 25, 2011

Markos Moulitsas, Democratic Power Broker

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It's not every day that two members of Congress from the president's own party demand a White House press secretary's resignation, but that's exactly what Reps. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Alan Grayson, D-Fla., did last August.

What was the crime of President Obama's chief spokesman? The previous day, Gibbs criticized "the professional left," who he said wouldn't be satisfied until "we have Canadian health care and we've eliminated the Pentagon. That's not reality. ... They wouldn't be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president."

Within hours of the story's publication, Gibbs had issued an apology explaining: "I watch too much cable, I admit. Day after day, it gets frustrating."

But Gibbs must not have been watching Fox News, which no one has ever described as a voice on the Left. More likely, it was MSNBC, the favored cable TV outlet of left-wing political activists who often exercise a decisive influence on Democratic officials and policies.

Mostly, these activists come from Big Labor, Big Green, the trial lawyers or the nonprofit communities. Others come from the media or the blogosphere. Take, for example, Markos Moulitsas, founder of the highly influential Daily Kos blog.

As an unemployed Web developer, he began posting comments following the dot-com bust in 2001 on a small liberal politics site called MyDD.com. By the summer of 2002, this writer had gained a large enough following to start the Daily Kos. The "Kos" is pronounced the same as the last syllable of his first name.

Born in Chicago in 1971, Kos' family lived in El Salvador from 1976 through 1980 where they were on the anti-communist side of the Salvadoran civil war. Mirroring President Reagan's fervent anti-communist policies, Kos counted himself a Republican until he entered the army a few weeks shy of his 18th birthday.

In the Army, Kos found his progressive politics, recounting in the American Prospect: "The military is perhaps the ideal society. We worked hard but the Army took care of us in return. All our basic needs were met, housing, food, and medical care."

By contrast, Kos became disillusioned by "the selfishness, lack of community, and sense of entitlement inherent in the Republican philosophy." By 2002, Kos had grown tired of losing to that Republican philosophy and he thought he knew why conservatives kept winning elections: "The simplest fact about American politics is that Republicans have a noise machine and we don't."

Turns out Kos was not the only one hungry for a leftist noise machine. In April 2004 when four American contractors (all veterans and three of them fathers) were killed and their bodies hung from a bridge, Kos wrote: "I feel nothing over the death of the mercenaries. ... They are there to wage war for profit. Screw them."

Kos received a ton of attention for this comment ... attention which he was able to monetize. As a result, 2004 became the first year Kos was able to turn managing the Daily Kos into a full-time job. The Daily Kos now employees eight, has 250,000 registered users and attracts 2.5 million unique visitors a month.

Also in 2004, the Daily Kos raised $500,000 for 15 Democratic candidates. In 2006, using the online fundraising political action committee ActBlue, the Daily Kos raised $1.4 million for 17 Democratic candidates. As of December 2010, ActBlue had raised more than $170 million for Democratic candidates, making it the largest single PAC source for Democratic campaign funds.

Messaging and fundraising are not the end of Kos' activism. The professional left has also made candidate recruitment a priority, even taking on the establishment's picks if they are not left-wing enough.

In 2006, they helped Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., defeat less liberal candidates in Democratic primaries, then defeat conservative Republican incumbents.

Kos has also dived into the polling game too, commissioning more than 155 polls in 2008 alone, more than any news outlet in the country.

Messaging, fundraising, polling, candidate recruitment ... there is a word for an entity that performs all of these functions: a political party.

Conn Carroll is assistant director of strategic communications at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Examiner

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