The Blog

The New Litmus Test

The left-wing blogosphere is ready to take on the party establishment. What do Democratic candidates have to do to earn the love?

12:00 AM, Aug 12, 2005 • By DEAN BARNETT
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CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR BILL SCHNEIDER is many things, but a dispenser of new and original insights he is not. So when even the avuncular cable analyst noticed the rise of the left-wing political blogs last week, it suggested that the ascendancy of the liberal blogosphere has gone from conventional wisdom to cliché.

What had caught Schneider's eye was the role blogs played in the special congressional election in Ohio's second district. When President Bush appointed the district's incumbent Rob Portman as his trade representative, political analysts widely assumed that the seat would remain safely Republican. Portman routinely won the district with over 70 percent of the vote and Bush had defeated Kerry by a wide margin in the district; analysts widely considered the district one of the reddest in the country.

And yet a strange dynamic took hold in the special election. The Republicans nominated a veteran state senator, Jean Schmidt, who according to both friend and foe was a lackluster politician who subsequently ran a lackluster campaign. What's more, Schmidt was saddled with the baggage of being a staunch supporter of Ohio's wildly unpopular governor, Robert Taft, whose sole unique political talent seems to be an ability to alienate his state's voters. Taft's current approval ratings hover below the political Mendoza line of 20 percent.

The Democrats, on the other hand, nominated political neophyte Paul Hackett to be their standard bearer. Although an attorney, Hackett had some résumé items that distinguished him from the typical office-seeking lawyer. In 2004, Hackett reenlisted in the Marines (where he had served until 1999) to aid in the Iraq war effort. In the Marines, he led a civil service unit in Ramadi and saw combat in the Falluja campaign.

Hackett also turned out to be an unlikely hero for the left-wing blogs. In spite of being adamantly for gun owner's rights, unequivocally against pulling out of Iraq until victory is achieved ("We need to get it right, and we need to do it now," he said), and repeatedly disparaging his opponent for supporting Ohio's tax-raising governor, the left-wing blogs who typically loath centrist Democrats adored Hackett.

So profound was their affection for Hackett that a "blog swarm" developed on his behalf. It would not be overstating matters to say that the blogs, led by Bob Brigham of Swing State Project, put Hackett and the 2nd District race on the metaphorical political map. While the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) ignored the race, Brigham and other bloggers indefatigably raised funds, volunteered time, and spewed rhetoric on Hackett's behalf. Their efforts put the seat in play, and shortly before the election, the DCCC finally entered the fray on Hackett's behalf.

In the aftermath of a shocking election night, one that was widely described by left-wing bloggers as "colossal" and "tidal," Bill Schneider bestowed his "Play of the Week" award on Brigham and his peers.

The only downside from the Democrat party's perspective is the inconvenient fact that Hackett lost.

FOR THOSE WHO VIEW POLITICS THROUGH a Manichaean worldview where winning and losing is paramount, the fact that the Democratic party lost the election would be proof positive that the entire episode fell somewhere short of perfection for the left. Indeed, no less an authority than James Carville (who raised $100,000 for Hackett with a single appearance) suggested in an interview that the celebrations might best be deferred until there's an actual victory to commemorate.

But bloggers and other analysts have been eager to extrapolate the results of Ohio 2nd District (Hackett lost by about 4 percent) out to the 2006 midterm elections--and beyond. Whether or not such inferences are warranted is an open debate, but not a particularly interesting one. Given the rapid speed with which the modern political terrain shifts, it's unlikely that the national conditions will remain as they are 16 months hence.

But even if the race was a one-off outlier, it still heralded the arrival of two important issues that are likely to be with the Democratic party for the foreseeable future. The first is whether mainstream party outlets like the DCCC can maintain relevance given the competition they receive from the blogs. The second is whether, given the blogs' growing influence, Democratic candidates will be likely to practice the brand of politics that appeals to the bloggers and their readers.

THE INTRAMURAL SCUFFLE BETWEEN the blogs and the DCCC would be hilarious if it did not hold such potentially dire consequences for the Democratic party.