Obama Should Learn Lesson from Left-wing Blogosphere
Sunday, July 25, 2010 6:59:41 PM
Earlier in the week, we watched the tit-for-tat unfold between the NAACP and the tea party movement, culminating in the intentional assault on the reputation of an Agriculture Department employee, Shirley Sherrod, by tea party activist and right-wing blogger, Andrew Breitbart; and Sherrod's subsequent firing by Agriculture Secretary Tim Vilsach. Then today, on Meet the Press, Rick Santelli responded to the NAACP's accusation of the presence of racists in the tea party movement by asserting that the tea party is not a Party like the Democrats or Republicans, but a philosophy around which a broad range of people converge.
There is actually a common thread to all of these events this week; a thread I am confident both Joe Trippi and former presidential candidate Howard Dean can speak to. For those too young to know, or too old to remember, Joe Trippi, as the campaign manager for Howard Dean's '04 presidential bid, revolutionized political campaigns by successfully harnessing a network of grassroots progressive bloggers and bringing progressive activists together via Meetup.com... oh, and raising money via the internet. While the practice of harnessing grassroots political bloggers for political campaigns or for idealogical movements is still in its infancy, it's safe to say that the conduct of campaigns has been forever altered. Joe Trippi will go down in history for that.
But Joe Trippi and Howard Dean learned a harsh lesson about grassroots bloggers in the process that today's politicians, including Barack Obama, movement leaders and political pundits would do well to heed. The tea party might benefit from their lesson as well; though, not being a fan of the tea party movement, I would be satisfied if they would ignore the lesson and fold in on themselves. The lesson is simple: a politician or "movement leader" can tap into and harness grassroots political bloggers, but they can't control them. A key example is in play. During the Democratic primary of '04, the right successfully portrayed Howard Dean as much more liberal than he was; or at least as much more liberal than Howard Dean wanted to be perceived. How did they do that? They had only to point to blog postings from the Deaniac bloggers, even ones by yours truly, to demonstrate how far to the left Howard Dean's supporters were; and, by association, how liberal Howard Dean was. I know that Joe Trippi was acutely aware of the impact the Deaniac bloggers were having on Howard Dean's campaign in that area because I sat in on many a meeting between the Dean campaign officials in New York City and NYC Deaniacs where the officials strived, to greater or lesser success, to reign in the messaging of NYC's Deaniacs.
At the same time, as Barack Obama implicitly acknowledged by reaching out to Netroots Nation and as Michael Cohen and other op/ed writers acknowledged in begging for political loyalty, politicians need the grassroots political bloggers behind them to succeed.
Now some will argue that Howard Dean's harnessing of a network of bloggers failed because he did not win the Democratic primary in '04. It did not fail, which is why politicians on the left and the right now feel the need to harness grassroots bloggers. But this sets me up to explain the stark differences between Dean in '04 and the current campaigns coming up to the mid-term elections. In '04, the right caught on quickly to the momentum Howard Dean achieved through the blogosphere and attacked him as a front runner. They were able to do that because then-President George W. Bush, for all his evils, earned the loyalty and support of his base; a base who felt no compunction for acting and speaking unethically in attacking who they perceived as their opponents (among the opponents, left-wing bloggers). I did not see that so much at NYC4Dean (where the right had no hope), so much as at CatholicsForDean. I saw it elsewhere as well. The radical right felt they had a champion and that their political philosophy was finally exonerated. As a consequence, they fought incessently and arrogantly through the blogosphere, mostly through trolling, to ensure their champion would win out against the progressive blogosphere movement.
Today, President Barack Obama does not enjoy that same support from the left-wing base, because he has not earned that support the way Bush earned the right-wing base's support. That is a problem for Obama and for the Democratically-controlled Congress. In trying to reach out in bi-partisanship in the effort to develop the support of the independent voters, Obama forgot something very important. He forgot that, while the independent, swing voters may determine an election, it's the active contribution of the activist blogger who sways the opinions of the independent voters. More importantly, he missed the lesson learned by Trippi and Dean that, while bloggers can be harnessed, they cannot be controlled. If you want the continued support of a network of bloggers, you have to earn it. You cannot demand blind loyalty.