Robert Draper Takes Me Back To The Future

I couldn’t help but have some déjà vu reading Robert Draper’s New York Times Magazine piece, Can the Republicans Be Saved From Obsolescence?

It was eight years ago John Kerry had lost his campaign for President. Progressives were dismayed. For the next year we gathered at innumerable conferences to diagnose and fix our Party and our movement. Some of these efforts led to the creation of organizations – out of a small invitation-only gathering of online organizers at a retreat center in Maryland the New Organizing Institute was created.

Some merely built up social capital and created new networks on the left – the most memorable was a gathering that culminated in an all-night dance party DJed by Moby in the basement of his upstate New York home.

My favorite memory from those years was of a bipartisan gathering where a smug Karl Rove stood on stage and claimed to the audience that email lists -- this was the age before social media took off and email was the only real means of large scale online contact – were essentially meaningless and did not contribute to electoral success. I recall he even went as far as postulating after the event that Democrats exaggerated their online fundraising numbers.

The Republican digerati now meet at a “Russian bar in Midtown Manhattan, over Baltika beers” – we spent Sunday afternoons outside a dive bar called Townhouse Tavern in Dupont Circle.

And don’t forget the PowerPoints.

Rob Stein, former chief of staff at the Commerce Department during the Clinton administration’s presentation titled, “The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix” led to the creation of the Democracy Alliance and the building of progressive infrastructure.

A second, less known, but influential presentation was given by Markos Moulitsas, the founder of DailyKos, at a Senate retreat in January of 2005. A Kennedy Center conference room full of Senators sat mouths agape as Markos methodically explained how attacks from local blogs, several of whom were paid by John Thune’s campaign, had helped defeat Tom Daschle.

Software failures?

While the Bush team created the much-praised “Voter Vault” database – the Kerry team was saddled with “Demzilla” – built by the DNC -- which contained no grassroots organizing tools. And yes that was its real name.

Across the party, in fits and starts, we got to work fixing deficiencies, building infrastructure and creating organizations. Think tanks were founded, advocacy organizations created, software coded, firms formed to service party needs, members of the digital class going to work within official parts of the Democratic infrastructure, and organizations that previously only worked outside the mainstream, now coordinated with it.

However, there is a difference between the fight Democratic online activists waged in 2005 and today’s Republican version as depicted in Draper’s article. In 2005, the status quo argument by conventional Washington was that Democrats needed to act more like Republicans. The retort was this is exactly what cost us elections in 2002 and 2004. It was outsiders – even those on the inside were outsiders – dragging insiders into building a more progressive Democratic party.

As Harry Reid prepared for his appearance before the first YearlyKos (now Netroots Nation) conference, one senior Congressional aide advocated that the Democratic leader should use the opportunity to “Sister Souljah” – he used that phrase -- the blogs – a reference to Bill Clintons speech where as a candidate he criticized the hip-hop star for a statement about the LA riots and her inclusion in Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow coalition. The idea was thankfully rejected. 

A year earlier I had cautioned at a meeting that Joe Lieberman would face a primary battle from the left, one he would likely lose. I recommended he walk back from his extreme pro-war positions and work to highlight his environmentalism. This was rebuffed when I was told that there is no way another candidate would even get through the party convention in Connecticut, much less beat Joe Lieberman, who just five years earlier was the Party’s nominee for Vice President. A few months later Ned Lamont announced his candidacy.

During a meeting at the DNC in late 2005, a senior party official told me they didn’t believe that increasing our grassroots presence to raise online money would ultimately be good for the party because it would alter the constituencies the party was responsive too, shifting away from big donors, to a much more progressive grassroots base. I was literally in shock – this was Howard Dean’s DNC.

One strategist even suggested to me in the summer of 2006, Hillary Clinton should run her Presidential Campaign “against the blogs.” I almost burst out laughing. Do you really think voters in Iowa and New Hampshire really care about “the blogs?”

We had to contend with conservative Democrats, organizations such as the corporate-backed Democratic Leadership Council, and intellectuals at magazines like The New Republic who attacked us for the suggestion that getting out of Iraq was not only the right thing to do, but it was also the right political position.

Our mission was far esier than the one facing Draper’s Republicans. They need to win an inside battle, similar to the one waged by Democrats in 2005, while also pressing an outside fight against the Tea Party who threaten to make the GOP unelectable at the national level. 

In 28-year-old GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, Draper found the prefect representation of this conundrum:

“Later that evening at a hotel bar, Anderson pored over her notes. She seemed morbidly entranced, like a homicide detective gazing into a pool of freshly spilled blood. In the previous few days, the pollster interviewed Latino voters in San Diego and young entrepreneurs in Orlando. The findings were virtually unanimous. No one could understand the G.O.P.’s hot-blooded opposition to gay marriage or its perceived affinity for invading foreign countries. Every group believed that the first place to cut spending was the defense budget. During the whiteboard drill, every focus group described Democrats as “open-minded” and Republicans as ‘rigid.’ ”

A second example comes when The Blaze and MSNBC host S.E. Cupp laments:

“If we can get three Republicans on three different networks saying, ‘What Rush Limbaugh said is crazy and stupid and dangerous,’ maybe that’ll give other Republicans cover” to denounce the talk-show host as well.

Draper's article left me with the feeling that some of the Republicans profiled had become fooled by the false premise that the medium is the message. 

Orca, the Romney campaigns failed voter mobilization software, could have been the greatest piece of coding since the Flying Toaster Screen Saver, but does anyone actually believe it would have closed a 4 point national vote gap or a 126 point electoral college victory? Likely no.

This isn’t to say technology is not critical. If I were a Republican I would be rushing to close the gaps – but becoming overly deterministic about its value is a recipe for failure.

Barack Obama’s Reddit chat was savvy. But the problem is not that Republicans don’t use Reddit, but that the community assembled there would be less than likely to accept candidates who don’t believe in basic science. (See Marco Rubio on the age of the Earth.)

The Internet doesn’t make it rain – it makes buckets that catch rain. 

Another way of putting that is – if you build it they won’t necessarily show up. Barack Obama is a uniquely appealing candidate for the Internet age. His message in 2008 as articulated in his announcement speech -- “This campaign can't only be about me. It must be about us -- it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams” – is tailored perfectly to the Internet age. Barack Obama’s online team was able, and this was no easy feat, to take all of this potential energy and convert it into kinetic energy. In political terms, that means money and mobilization. This was the genius of Obama’s Internet team.

Neither Mitt Romney nor John McCain were candidates with the potential energy to fuel an online groundswell. This is another challenge Republicans face – the very candidates that could excite the grassroots come from the Tea Party wing of the GOP.

At the same time, Democrats should not be cocky in victory. The pendulum could easily swing back the other way. We soon forget that the candidate to make the most successful use of the Internet in 2000 was John McCain, who fueled his campaign with online contributions after his New Hampshire primary victory. Just as Karl Rove’s dreams of a permanent Republican majority came crashing down, hubris could lead to a Democratic defeat.

Additionally, partisan victories come easier than ideological ones. Many on the left, who fought these battles in 2005, still feel left out in the cold in terms of actual policy change from Washington.  

The history of elections is like the history of wars. Winning generals receive too much credit, losing ones too much blame. Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein succinctly summed this up in a piece about House of Cards:

“All parties and groups are fractious and bumbling. But everyone always thinks everyone else is efficiently and ruthlessly carrying out complicated plans. Partisans are very good at recognizing disarray and incompetence on their side of the aisle, but they tend to think the other side is intimidatingly capable and unburdened by scruples or normal human vulnerabilities. And there's so much press interest in Svengali political consultants like Karl Rove or David Plouffe, all of whom get built up in the press as infallible tacticians, that the place just looks a lot more sophisticated than it really is.”

That kind of puffed-up beltway sophistication can lead politicos to outsmart themselves. Amid their two-fronted civil war, Republicans would do well to acknowledge that the basic flaw with their political recipe is in its main ingredients, rather than merely applying new finishing touches.