Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Maybe You Should Drive

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 482

So, let's say you're a blogger. And let's say a presidential campaign calls you up one day because they've been reading your stuff, and they note that you've run some posts that, if not exactly endorsements of their candidate, more or less concur with them on some point of policy - like Iraq, for instance. And then let's say they ask you if you'd be interested in appearing in a campaign ad for their guy to talk about it.

Would you do it?

Of course you would. Like, duh. Adding our voices to the din and exerting influence in the political process is why most of us took the leap into the vast echo chamber of the blogosphere in the first place. To be individually recognized, even lauded, by one of the very campaigns you've been covering, on top of that is just gravy, no matter how many, or few, hits your site gets. No way you could pass it up.

Throw in a healthy slap at the mainstream media by way of introduction, and you've got an ad that practically writes itself.

That's pretty much he story behind Bill Richardson's new commercial, now playing on YouTube, and, in 30-second form, on televisions in New Hampshire. Featuring bloggers Matt Stoller and Chris Bowers from Open Left.com and Christina Siun O'Connell from Firedoglake.com, Richardson's ad touts his plan for withdrawing all US forces from Iraq and attacks - and that really is the only word that fits - every other Democratic candidate for not taking the same position.

So, okay. There are no easy answers on Iraq, and reasonable people will disagree on what should be done. Try asking two Army generals what they think should be done on Iraq and see what happens.

There’s something admirable about Richardson’s consistency in sticking by his “all troops out now” stance, especially since polling indicates that the percentage of the public who support that approach is roughly equal with the minority at the other extreme who think we should throw ever more troops into the war until we “win.” Those numbers haven’t moved much so far this year, indicating that Richardson’s proposals aren’t really having much impact in framing the Iraq debate. So continuing to hammer away at it regardless either indicates political ineptitude on Richardson's part or demonstrates the courage of his convictions (I'm convinced it is the latter).

But what strikes me most forcibly about Richardson’s ad is not what it says about Richardson’s position on troop redeployment, but its reflection on the electorate at large and its perceived view of the netroots and its role in setting the terms of political discussion this cycle: a mystical beast in an ethereal electronic lair, breathing digital fire upon its enemies and bestowing incalculable binary influence in the form of “buzz” to those who win its favor. The overriding message of the ad is that Richardson's got the internet mojo.

Don’t misunderstand me: in the early going, I believe that we do, in fact, have a material impact on shaping issues that will matter in the election campaign. The question is, in the frenetic campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, what does “early going” really mean?

I would argue that when it comes to promoting issues and setting the terms of discussion in this campaign, we are not now seeing the blazing noon of the period in which we in the netroots exert our disproportionate influence, but rather, are approaching its twilight. Not that we’ve stopped speaking out, and certainly not to say that we in any way should, but we’ve been weighing in on the issues in this campaign, and Iraq in particular, for a long time now. And, as evidenced by Richardson’s ad, among other things, the campaigns certainly have heard us, loud, if not always clear.

But having heard from the netroots, campaign have pretty much “priced in” our voices and formulated their strategies to court or deflect them, and are starting to move on. Does this mean that we’ve entered a static period in which candidates’ attitudes vis-à-vis the political blogosphere will remain more or less the same, come what may? No. The netroots will continue to exert influence, continue to call candidates to account where we think they fall short, and continue to work hard to drum up support for whichever candidate we individually decide merits our favor. And that will continue to register on candidates and their campaigns. But will we see a decline in how far our reach extends in shaping the political discussion and driving candidates to respond to us throughout the rest of the primary season? Yes. There are other fish in the electoral sea: PACs, “traditional” interest groups like the NAACP, AMA and ABA, advocacy groups, and, let’s not forget, labor unions. Each of these will only grow in importance as the campaign evolves, and, like it or not, will increasingly dilute the influence of the netroots the closer to a conclusion this campaign comes. It’s not that these groups are the enemies of the netroots; rather, and by nature, we do different things. Where we mobilize opinion, they mobilize the donors who finance campaigns and armies of volunteers who knock on doors, man phone banks, lick envelopes, and do the thousand other things that must be done to reach the constituency wielding the ultimate say in the election’s outcome: the voters themselves.

“The ad demonstrates how important the netroots community is to the political dialogue,” Richardson’s National Press Secretary Tom Reynolds told the New York Times today. “Obviously our campaign recognizes their power in communicating a message.” True enough. But in politics, as in so much of life, timing is everything, and Richardson’s ad, far from cresting the netroots wave, catches it just as its moment of decisive advantage in this campaign is beginning to decline.

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