Sunday, August 05, 2007

An interview with mcjoan

-- by Dave

It’s a long way from a mountain plateau in Idaho to a presidential debate in Chicago. But Seattle’s Joan McCarter – aka “mcjoan,” as the thousands of readers at the mega-popular blog Daily Kos know her – has managed that neat feat.

Saturday’s Democratic presidential forum at the Yearly Kos “netroots” convention at the McCormick Convention Center in Chicago featured seven of the eight candidates and an unusually lively and engaged debate, perhaps spurred on by a vocal and equally engaged audience. It was co-moderated by the New York Times’ Matt Bai and “mcjoan” (or, as a comic later that night joked onstage, “better known as Em Cee Joan to her fans”).

McCarter grew up in politics in Idaho, worked briefly for now-Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon when he was a congressman, and wound up in Seattle getting a master’s in Russian Studies at the University of Washington.

I sat down and had a nice long chat with Joan shortly after she finished moderating the presidential debate.


Q: Tell me about your academic background.

McCarter: I have a masters in international studies from the University of Washington's Jackson School. It's in Russian Studies, which I'm really using now [laughs]. I did a masters thesis on public health in Russia, so I combined public health, public policy, and political science.

Q: Who do you work for now?

McCarter: I work for Marcos. I am a Daily Kos Fellow. Up until January of this year I worked at the University of Washington as an editor and an instructional designer in the UW extension. I was helping develop online instruction courses.

So for awhile there my entire life was online. Work all went online, blogging was all online.

Q: When did you first start posting at Kos?

McCarter: I signed up in February of 2004. That makes me a relative newbie. I lurked for awhile, I read for awhile, and I signed up because I thought, 'OK, I can join this conversation.'

I should back up a bit. One of the reasons I'm wearing this bracelet today because of my brother-in-law, who we lost last year to lymphoma. He was the person who actually got me onto the blogs. He kept reading Daily Kos and telling me, 'You know as much as those guys. You know as much as those guys. You want to jump into that boys' treehouse and start butting some heads.'

Q: Because it was kind of a boys' treehouse back then.

A: It was very much a boys' treehouse. It was a boys' club, even when I joined relatively late. It took me awhile to find my voice. I've always loved electoral politics, democratic politics. Like everyone else, I was horrified by the war in Iraq. And this was the perfect niche for me.

Q: So it was the war in Iraq that motivated you to get involved.

McCarter: Sure. Backing up a little further, my first life in politics, after the election in 1994, was when I had taken most of the year off to work on a campaign in Idaho, and ended up doing sort of coordinated campaign work in Ada County.

Q: You grew up in Idaho, didn't you?

McCarter: I grew up in Idaho, in Democratic politics. My dad was state chair of the party during the halcyon days of [Frank] Church and [Cecil] Andrus.

Q: What's his name?

McCarter: Joe McCarter. Dad actually hired Chris LaRocco [the wife of Larry LaRocco, a former Idaho congressman and a Democratic candidate for the 2008 Idaho Senate race] to be an organizer for Andrus in Twin Falls County, and that's how Chris and Larry got into politics. So I've known Larry for a great deal of my life. Everybody in Idaho knows everybody when you're a Democrat.

Q: I knew Larry when he was Frank Church's press secretary. I always felt bad about what happened to him, losing to Helen Chenoweth.

McCarter: In 1994. After that election, I thought, 'I'm not doing politics anymore. I'm getting a masters degree and doing something different.'

Q: So let's fast-forward to when you signed up with Kos. I remember that it was very much a boys' club, as you said, and I was reading some very sexist stuff in the comments. And then Markos wrote a somewhat infamous post about feminist issues needing to take a back seat to "real" issues like the war.

McCarter: It was a meta-war we were having. That was actually one of my more proud moments. It was before I was made a front-pager, but I took after him in the comments on that and we had a brief exchange there. It was after that that he apologized -- as limited as his apology was. He doesn't apologize often.

Q: Maybe part of that military background.

McCarter: Yes. And the other thing about Markos is that he's got an incredibly thick skin. Incredibly.

Q: Obviously, because after having that exchange with you, he started pushing you out on the front page. Have you been pretty comfortable there?

McCarter: I have. I love it. It's the best job I've ever had. You know, I never thought I would find the perfect job for me. And I love the kind of writing we do, I love keeping track of the different issues and just writing short posts. It's a thrill. I'm a little worried about taking on this book project, wondering if I have the attention span to write entire chapters. [Laughs]

Q: What's the book project?

McCarter: It's about Democratic politics in the interior West. I've gotta come up with a catchier title than that, though. [Laughs]

Q: That's your subtitle. Who's publishing it?

McCarter: Vaster Publications, which was created by Markos, actually, and Jane Hamsher [the creator of the popular community blog Firedoglake].

Q: So, were you happy with how the presidential candidates' forum went?

McCarter: I thought the interaction them was the best I've seen it yet. At least up on the stage, that was what it looked like. The audience sort of got everyone fired up and engaged.

Q: So how did you get roped into moderating the forum?

McCarter: Gina [Cooper] thought I would be good for it. She and I had spent a lot of time together at the last convention, we've gotten to know each other. I've put together some other panels, and she thought it would work. Markos did not want to do it because he's got so much other stuff going on, so he just said -- hey! And also because I'm probably the No. 2 person at Kos. And having a woman onstage -- it's important that we're out there representing liberal bloggers.

Q: So for all of Markos' alleged sexist reputation in some quarters of the blogosphere, the reality is fairly different.

McCarter: At least half of the editors are women. In my class, there was only one man promoted.

Q: So how did feel to be like being up there onstage with presidential candidates?

McCarter: Terrified! But it was easier to become engaged than I expected. I was concerned that I would be too much in my head thinking about the next thing. But I never had that opportunity because it was all happening so fast and we had to change up so quickly.

So the questions didn't necessarily go in the order we had them in, and half of my questions went by the wayside. I had some pretty tough ones on being a Democrat, renouncing triangulation, that sort of thing.

I wanted to ask Obama about some of that, because every now and then in his speeches you hear, 'Well, it's not a Democratic problem or a Republican problem, it's all of our problem,' that sort of thing. And I want to ask him about making a contrast. Because in 2007, I don't think you can argue that it's an equal problem particularly.

Q: It seems to me that it reflects a certain naivete on the part of not just Obama, but Democrats generally, that they seem to have this idea that you can – as Kerry did in 2004 – that you can just have it be an all-positive framing, but you don’t do any fighting back. That you don’t hit back at Republicans for their attacks – not only the things that they’re hitting you with, but their own misbehavior and bad policy.

McCarter: Yes. And this reinforces the idea that Democrats are weak, and that just falls back into the idea that they’re weak on national security, that they’re weak on defense. It just feeds that whole namby-pamby image.

Q: You felt that this may have been the best event so far of all the debates we’ve seen on either side.

McCarter: I think in drawing them out, Richardson was stronger yet than I have seen him in a debate, as was Dodd. Clinton held up very well under some hostility. Obama and Edwards did their usual, you know, red meat to partisan crowd. But I thought particularly it showcased Dodd as the passionate person he really is.

Q: Yes. I thought Dodd gained the most in this one. He did a lot of good for himself; he was impressive.

McCarter: And I thought it was the best performance for Richardson. I think he was – he seemed, in some previous ones, a little distracted – but it felt to me that he was right there and wanting to get in on all the discussions, and very engaged.

And I was onstage seeing them, so, I don’t know if it felt the same way in the audience.

Q: But I thought Richardson killed himself with his saying he supported a balanced-budget amendment. He got booed for that.

McCarter: Yeah.

Q: Still, I came out of it thinking I’d be comfortable with four of them up there – Clinton, Obama, Edwards, or Dodd – as the nominee.

McCarter: Isn’t that nice – to know that whoever the Democratic nominee is going to be is you’re going to be OK with them?

Q: Well, for me at least. Obviously not everyone here feels that way, but … And you know, I felt that way generally in 2004, even with Kerry as the ultimate nominee. I was just disappointed they weren’t prepared to fight back.

McCarter: Yeah, and that’s why I was a Dean supporter; I liked the fire in Howard. His keynote here [Thursday night] was just – it made me cry. It was good to see that fire.

It was really fun to have the extended discussion we did have on the 50-state strategy [Dean’s expansive strategy as chairman of the Democratic National Committee]. I thought that would be a raise-your-hand, and we wouldn’t really get a lot of follow-up. I was very pleased with how they reacted to that idea and how they expanded on it.

Q: Do you have any interest in getting involved in Seattle politics?

McCarter: I get very frustrated with Seattle politics. I think growing up in Idaho politics, the stakes are so much harder, and I think people pick their fights more intelligently, because it’s so much harder to win.

When I worked for [then-Rep. Ron] Wyden in Portland, some of the time, this was my problem with Ron, because it was his seat for life if he wanted it. He’s been better as a senator, I think, about being a little tougher, having a little harder edge. But there’s so many things that being in a safe district allow you to do.

Q: So this has been a long personal road for you.

McCarter: We lived out on a ranch near Fairfield. There were about 15 kids in my class.

Q: And then you wind up moderating a presidential debate. That’s a long ways to go.

McCarter: Kind of a long ways. You know, there are memories – we used to have birthday parties for Cecil Andrus in our back yard. So it’s not totally foreign to me. But it’s still – it’s pretty astounding to me to be part of something like what is happening in the blogosphere, to be part of what’s happening here, not just with the debates.

Q: It’s almost as if they’re re-energizing democracy, getting ordinary people re-engaged.

McCarter: The energy in that room from all of those people who care so passionately – and that’s just the people who could come. Multiply it by the tens, hundreds of thousands out there. It’s very exciting.

Q: And it’s exciting that you get to play this kind of role in it.

McCarter: Yeah, that’s very exciting too. Yes! [Laughs]


Cross-posted at Crosscut.

Be sure to also check out my previous YKos dispatches for Crosscut:

Running for president with the netroots

Not exactly a pack of nutcases

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