At a little before 6 each morning, a wiry, 27-year-old political operative fires up his computer in his Washington, D.C., apartment. While other Democratic spinners are still in bed, dreaming about their next power breakfast, stubble-faced, bleary-eyed David Sirota is already at the keyboard, hacking out a daily barrage of anti-Bush media clips, commentary and snappy quotes. Sirota's e-mails--sent to the capital's journalists and political pros--tend to portray President Bush as a bullying huckster (Sirota branded the illegal leak of a CIA agent's name "Intimigate"). But they occasionally cause the administration genuine headaches. One Sirota blast last month diverted Colin Powell from an exhaustive round of talks at the United Nations. Working on a tip from an obscure Australian Web site, Sirota unearthed an embarrassing comment the secretary of State made two years ago. In Cairo, Powell had said that Iraq posed no threat to its neighbors, and possessed no "significant capability" in weapons of mass destruction. Reporters pounced. "It was early in the administration," Powell sheepishly explained.
Sirota is the Internet child of the Clinton "war-room" generation. Intense, driven, even obsessive, he fills the gap left by a timid Democratic establishment, with his guerrilla strikes on the Bush administration. At a time when the party is torn between its presidential contenders and remains largely powerless in Congress, Sirota strikes a loud chord of Democratic frustration. Yet he is more than just an angry young man with an overflowing outbox of e-mail. A new hire at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that launches this week, Sirota is part of an ambitious attempt to shake Democrats out of their stupor and reshape liberal politics. "The right wing is running a 24-hour-a-day campaign against centrist politics," he says. "Our side isn't necessarily used to that kind of intensity."
Though young, Sirota is well schooled in the art of Washington warfare. After college at Northwestern, Sirota--who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs--worked for Rep. Bernie Sanders, the vocal independent congressman from Vermont, and then David Obey, the senior Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. There he started e-mailing his attacks on Bush, giving Democrats neatly packaged sound bites and journalists irresistible quotes.
One of those buried under Sirota's e-mails earlier this year was John Podesta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff, who was just then setting up the Center for American Progress. "I didn't know him," says Podesta. "I just saw he had an eye for critique and the instinct for the jugular." Podesta's dream is to replicate the success of the Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks, which act as incubators for Republican ideas. He gave Sirota a job, and a bigger platform--a new daily Web log called the Progress Report.
His missives now reach beyond D.C. It was Sirota who first calculated that the $87 billion for Iraq could be used to erase huge state deficits here at home, a line now parroted by Democrats nationwide. Dick Cheney claimed the Bush era would be the end of "the so-called war room and the permanent campaign." Sirota, hunched over his keyboard, is out to prove him wrong.