Saturday, February 2, 2008

To What Effect?

Ron Klain looks at the role of the blogosphere in determining the presidential primary races.

During the last five years, no movement has had as great an impact on progressive politics as the liberal blogosphere. Built from grassroots anger over Democratic leadership support for the Iraq war in 2002, liberal bloggers have chastised party leaders who backed President Bush, causing many prominent Democrats to reverse — and even recant — their positions on the war. Just as impressively, the blog voices on the left have played a critical role in pushing less visible issues — like electronic voting machines, bankruptcy legislation and telephone companies’ liability in wiretapping programs — into the mainstream.


The blogosphere has had impressive electoral success in Senate and House races, especially in 2006. But at the presidential level, while the blogosphere has been effective in changing the political debate and the party’s direction, it has been less successful in helping its preferred candidates to victory. Why?

Mr. Klain lists three reasons:

The blogosphere is an outsider’s movement and the presidential nominating process favors “insider” candidates. By this he suggests that the blogosphere was instrumental in the campaigns of folks like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul in setting up a David vs. Goliath match where Goliath inevitably wins. Not all bloggers, left or right, follow outsider candidates. Even in the small and somewhat loose community of the Liberal Coalition we had advocates for such mainstream candidates as Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, and John Edwards as well as so-called “outsiders” like Dennis Kucinich. Granted, the Liberal Coalition is a very small sampling of the blogosphere, but it perhaps is indicative of the diversity of opinion and advocacy that is out there. I daresay you can find the same among the righties, where you will still see the tattered flags of the Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, Tom Tancredo, and Duncan Hunter campaigns waving in the breeze. Ron Paul supporters may be loud and passionate, but they’re not the measuring stick of the right wing.

Second, if you look at the long-term impact, there may be results of the blogosphere effect that aren’t fully appreciated. Looking back to the 2004 election, it was an outsider — Howard Dean — who launched the “netroots” campaign for his presidential race and created a lot of buzz both within and without the internet, only to crater in Iowa. Game over? No, because the former governor of Vermont and insurgent candidate became the head of the DNC, the ultimate insiders group, and is largely responsible for the primary schedule we’re following today. Love it or hate it, that’s a result of the Dean Machine that emerged with a vengeance in the summer and fall of 2004; without it, Gov. Dean would be little more than a retired governor from a small state. (It also must be noted that the blogosphere was instrumental in his downfall; the Dean Scream was probably the first example of the YouTubing of a candidate, followed by George “Macaca” Allen.)

The blogosphere advances confrontational politics, and winning presidential campaigns are exercises in uniting the country. That’s the kind of gross generalization about the blogosphere that makes me think that pundits and columnists don’t really get it. I’m pretty sure that for every blog Mr. Klain can cite that advances confrontational politics, I can find one that does the opposite, and I also wonder what he categorizes as “confrontational” in the first place. Besides, an interactive medium is, by nature, confrontational. Look at talk radio, which is largely credited for the so-called Republican revolution in 1994, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and the rise of George W. Bush. Not exactly unifying there, either.

Also, a primary campaign and all the foreplay that leads up to the conventions and beyond is supposed to be confrontational. Everyone has to get their agenda out there, and the easiest way to do that is by pushing something, be it global warming, ending the war, or the mandatory implementation of the metric system, and making sure everyone knows that the other candidate or party isn’t doing enough to save the planet, bring the troops home, or measure snow in centimeters. That’s how you get attention.

Talking about unifying the country is one thing. But show me a presidential campaign in living memory that successfully used that message and actually did it, and I’ll send $5 to the Unity08 campaign. (Not that I wouldn’t like to see it happen.)

Maybe the blogosphere has actually won, and it just can’t take “yes” for an answer. As much as I like blogging and as much as I like to think that blogs have an influence, I am yet to be convinced that it has reached the level of saturation with the public, let alone the voting public, that equals that of a paper like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or a television news show like 60 Minutes. Blogs are a little like theatre; they have a selective audience. More people watched last week’s re-run of CSI than have seen all the performances of Hamlet since the play was written. (And if that’s not an ego breaker, the maximum number of people on the planet so far who could have seen the New York production of Can’t Live Without You is 246.) So if a candidate has steered their campaign to meet the demands of the blogosphere, it’s probably not because they were actually influenced solely by what was said on Daily Kos or Powerline. It would be a mistake for the blogosphere to take sole credit for the transition, as Mr. Klain notes, when “Senator Clinton — who took the most grief from the blogging left for her 2002 vote for the war — came to a position on the war that differed only modestly from that of Mr. Edwards.” It could have been that she came to that conclusion on her own without the help of the blogs, who sometimes take credit for wagging the dog.

The bottom line is that blogs, like any new medium, are finding their way into the process and are evolving as we go. Just as this election will present the country with a completely different choice than has been offered in the past and we — both the voters and the blogosphere — are making things up (in more ways than one) as we go along.