The Blog

Forced Perspective

The online world of the Dean campaign has convinced itself that there's something big going on. Are they right?

11:00 PM, Dec 17, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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HOWARD DEAN may have jumped the shark with his declaration that "the capture of Saddam has not made America safer," but don't tell that to the online world that the Dean campaign has built for itself.

Over at Blog for America, the official blog of the Dean campaign, Dean's astonishing and obstinately blinkered lift-off into the far fields of political rhetoric passed almost unnoticed as the zealots rallied around the campaign's outrage over the independent expenditure committee ad running in primary states accusing Dean of lacking the foreign policy and national security credentials necessary to challenge President Bush in a dangerous world.

The campaign reported to its blog readers that "[o]ver four days, 7,732 Americans contributed $552,214.62 to combat a shadowy group of Democrats attacking one of their own with images of Osama bin Laden. You showed that Americans won't be bullied into a climate of fear--and that trying to scare people out of the political process only makes our movement stronger."

This is the language of the wild-eyed, and the Dean campaign is increasingly gyrating with the frenzy usually associated with extremism. Which raises the question of whether the vast online network the Dean machine boasts of is such a good thing after all. It may have turned into a self-reinforcing hothouse of out-of-touch, marginal-but-loud cheerleading for itself. Feedback from the middle parts of the American spectrum appear to have been cut-off.

The Bush-Cheney 2004 online operation is large and sophisticated, and enthusiasm for Bush's reelection has launched online communities such as BlogsforBush. Such Internet infrastructure is essential for any modern national campaign, and the GOP has quietly established a huge lead over the Democrats in pioneering the use of the web. (The folks at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, for example, established nrsc.org early in the 2002 election cycle and used it to tremendous effect, especially in fundraising.)

The Dean operation, however, has attempted to invest its Internet-driven dynamic with mystical properties, which is why the campaign allows its blog to connect with dozens of unofficial blogs, and why it blurs the line between campaign staff and volunteers. The creation of an atmosphere in which a $50 contributor believes himself to be instrumental in setting campaign policy is likely to produce more $50 contributions. And more enthusiasm. And, curiously, the danger of thinking the campaign bigger than it is, and thus immune to the costs of nuttiness.

The nuttiest 1 percent of the American electorate is going to number around 1 million voters. Gather those people in one place, let them talk to each other and cheer each other on, and they are going to begin to assume that their 1 percent is much more numerous than it is, much more powerful, much more authentic than the 99 percent not at the rally.

This appears to be happening among the Deaniacs. They believe themselves to be far more numerous than they are, and to think that their self-referential assurances of virtue and victory carry weight beyond their chat rooms.

On the day of Dean's launch of a torpedo into his own ship--the self-evidently absurd statement above--the candidate met with the faithful at L.A.'s House of Blues. The Los Angeles Times, clearly smitten, ran a front page story on the event--in the entertainment industry driven Calendar section, complete with three big pictures of Dean, one of the crowd surging towards the stage on which Dean performed, and another of Rob Reiner, alpha male of the Hollywood left, welcoming Dean to movieland. The event was a fabulous success, with chanting and fervor and all the great stuff the Dean campaign loves to telegraph.

Dean's astonishing statement about Saddam's capture had been made earlier in the day, and the amazed reaction had begun to register across the country, but it had not made its way into the sealed room that the Dean campaign has become. The Times reported that Dean doubled down, stating that while it was a good thing the tyrant was captured, "We are not any safer in America because that happened!" The account continues: "Supporters, shoulder to shoulder, waved, jumped up and down, and snapped pictures."