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Monday, May 22, 2006

Netroots Coordinators: Content Not Container

Nancy Zuckerbrod and Brooke McDonald have a piece in today's LA Times: Politicians Get Help in New Online Media. The article looks at the role of netroots consultants, but focuses only the the technological aspect of the job description. In looking at how technology is changing campaigns, I think the first step in understanding post-broadcast media is to realize that it is the content, not the container, that is most critical. This is why an obscure former town selectman in Connecticut can build a campaign in a matter of months that is on TV, with a paid field staff, surprising everyone by beating expectations against a sitting Senator at the state's Democratic Party convention (see Lamont, Ned: I, II, III, IV). The technology was critical, but only to the extent it allowed content that resonated to be organized. The LA Times piece included this:

Consider Ari Rabin-Havt, 27, who blogs for a living as a staffer to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., 66. Rabin-Havt's duties include watching the blogosphere for what's being said about his boss and others, and helping manage the blog and other Web-based activities for Reid.

Rabin-Havt said the way politicians and their staffs view blogs and other Internet tools is dramatically different from just two years ago when he was helping Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry of Massachusetts with his Internet strategy.

"There was a communications staffer who once said to me -- in the summer of 2004 -- I wouldn't know a blog if it slapped me in the face," Rabin-Havt recalled. "I don't think that attitude exists anymore."
Ari is doing a great job communicating for Reid, the problem is that bloggers are growing increasingly disgusted by Reid's leadership of the Democratic senate caucus. It looks Reid was punked by Lieberman, but this is where having a netroots coordinator will be invaluable. If Lieberman does leave the Party, Reid will have the ability to instantly communicate with progressive bloggers to let them know the exact steps of punishment Reid was using (loss of committee standings, loss of committee staff, relocation of senate office space to a cardboard box in rural Virginia, etc.).

Another example of this is also found in the LA Times piece:
Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who is considering a presidential run, recently added a professional blogger to his staff. Warner likes to use video podcasts.

"Things that you can see and hear make a much greater impact than just reading," says Ellen Qualls, Warner's communications director. "Video of the governor is a much more powerful tool than simply an e-mail or blog post from him."
Yes, Warner has a big name netroots consultant whom I respect very much. Quall's emphasis on the medium (the container) instead of the message (the content) shows a lack of understanding of post-broadcast communications (not a good thing for a communications director in a post-broadcast world). While Warner may be using video to talk at people online, he is making the fundamental mistake of listening to Al From and the losers at the DLC. In what is probably today's most widely mocked piece online, Jackson Diehl suggests -- despite all evidence -- that listening to the DLC is a good thing:
Now they are beginning to gravitate toward some of the centrist Democrats who -- unlike Pelosi or Reid -- might actually emerge as serious presidential candidates in 2008, such as former Virginia governor Mark Warner, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.
Leaving aside the folly of trying to be the 2008 presidential candidate supported by the DLC if your name isn't Hillary Clinton, these three tier-two candidates can only win in spite of the netroots. I think Atrios did a great job of capturing the sentiment of the blogosphere to this approach.
It's really sad that so many in our elite punditocracy believe that hope is a plan, that wishes are ponies, and that the people who shit the bed and those who cheered on the shitting of the bed as it was being shat upon are the best qualified candidates to unshit it.
The content is the problem, listening to the DLC is what has seriously damaged the Democratic Party. It is why people are using online tools to rise up against the DLC. In fact, Paul Krugman makes a great case that the focus on the container and broadcast politics is why Joe Lieberman has sold his soul:

Mr. Lieberman's defenders would have you believe that his increasingly unpopular positions reflect his principles. But his Bushlike inability to face reality on Iraq looks less like a stand on principle than the behavior of a narcissist who can't admit error. And the common theme in Mr. Lieberman's positions seems to be this: In each case he has taken the stand that is most likely to get him on TV.

You see, the talking-head circuit loves centrists. But a centrist, as defined inside the Beltway, doesn't mean someone whose views are actually in the center, as judged by public opinion.

Instead, a Democrat is considered centrist to the extent that he does what Mr. Lieberman does: lends his support to Republican talking points, even if those talking points don't correspond at all to what most of the public wants or believes.

But this "center" cannot hold. And that's the larger lesson of what happened Friday. Mr. Lieberman has been playing to a Washington echo chamber that is increasingly out of touch with the country's real concerns. The nation, which rallied around Mr. Bush after 9/11 simply because he was there, has moved on -- and it has left Mr. Lieberman behind.

This is the beauty of post-broadcast politics, a message can resonate in spite of the container. In this new communications system, a focus on the container is actually counter-productive.

Hiring a netroots coordinator to talk at bloggers while using the DLC content isn't going to get a candidate anywhere. Look at the trend of the DailyKos straw poll, Warner has lost support while Senator Russ Feingold -- who has the best content -- continues to trend up.

Feingold isn't focused on the container, but is instead focused on the content. In sharp contrast to the DLC, history has proven that Feingold was right on issue after issue, from the Patriot Act to the war in Iraq.

Feingold may not have a big name netroots consultant who will get written about in the big-time papers writing these stories, but he is doing everything right when it comes to dealing with bloggers and earning support.

What is changing about Democratic Party politics isn't just the container, but the content. It is the changing container that is allowing the content to flourish as the DLC is rejected, but the best container isn't going to go anywhere with DLC content. Understanding this dynamic explains why Lamont is surging in Connecticut and why Feingold is surging in online polls.

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