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.
In the Hackett race, the bloggers who got involved proved themselves to be much savvier readers of the political landscape than the pros at the DCCC. While the DCCC was still considering the race hopeless, blogger Bob Brigham accurately perceived the effect the Hackett/Schmidt dichotomy would have on the race's dynamics and knew the battle was winnable.
So while Brigham got involved and ultimately blazed a trail that would soon be followed by other, more prominent, left-wing blogs like the MyDD.com and Daily Kos, the DCCC remained on the sidelines. When Hackett went on to lose the race by fewer than four points, the blogosphere's rage against the DCCC for staying out of the action until the final few days was palpable.
Again, Bob Brigham led the charge, rather colorfully expressing his anger. When the DCCC's in-house blogger "Jesselee" posted a bland thank-you/looking-to-the future essay on the MyDD, Brigham responded:
My perspective on the OH-02 election is that the DCCC was fucking irrelevant because you were too cowardly to fight early. When Hackett came to you at the beginning, you blew him off. When he won the primary, you looked at the numbers and sat on your ass. When you did come in, it was great--but way too late.
I love the ad you did, it would have been nice for people to see it before the final weekend. The DCCC sent some serious people at the end and they kicked ass, but it was too little, too late.
You fucked up, the blogs stepped up, and EVERYONE saw that your cowardly targeting was total fucking bullshit.
Right now, I think the DCCC is totally fucking irrelevant (members of the media can quote me on that as some of your colleagues already have). Get your shit together, but until that happens I don't think a single god damn dime should go to the DCCC. [emphasis in the original]
The DCCC responded to Brigham's tirade on their website, where Jesselee offered an irrelevant, ad hominem attack on Brigham in which she accused him of lying on national television. Subsequently, Jesselee made a rather pathetic effort to assure the hip blogging community that the DCCC is as cool as the other side of the pillow, exclaiming that, "The DCCC is rocking right now like no other." To date, Brigham remains unimpressed by the DCCC.
CLEARLY THE DCCC AND THE BLOGOSPHERE are going in different directions. The DCCC is a typical establishment political outfit that, while it supports liberal politicians, operates in a fundamentally conservative manner. As Donna Brazille observes, "The DCCC is understandably cautious in where it spends its limited money and time." Of course, caution is hardly the blogosphere's calling card.
But the results of the Hackett race will doubtlessly serve to elevate the blogosphere and diminish the DCCC's prestige. The race would never have been competitive if Hackett had not entered the good graces of the blogosphere and received the hundreds of thousands of dollars it raised for him.
What's more, at least in this race, bloggers such as Brigham were more insightful than the pros at the DCCC. If Brigham's influence does expand, he'll deserve it. He understood the situation before anyone else did: If the DCCC had listened to him and poured resources into the race before the 11th hour, it's quite possible that Hackett would have won. It would not be surprising if Democratic candidates queuing up for the 2006 elections were paying attention to who the Democratic king-makers (or near-king-makers) really were.
WITH AN INCREASING LIKELIHOOD that Democratic politicians might play to the blogs, it makes sense to ask what kind of politician and what kind of politics will appeal to the liberal virtual masses. On this score, Paul Hackett provides an invaluable case study.
Hackett was definitely a moderate. He never promised an end to the war in Iraq and never adopted any truly "progressive" causes. While he didn't say, "Read my lips--no new taxes," he did repeatedly belittle his opponent's tax-hiking ways. One would have to scan his website rather aggressively to find any mention of the fact that he is Democrat. Yet the left-wing bloggers loved him. Why?
While Hackett shared little with the liberal blogosphere in terms of substantive positions, they did have one thing in common--a mutual fondness for bilious and spiteful rhetoric. While some may cherish Hackett's bluntness, the attorney's choice of words at times made him sound as though he was channeling Michael Moore.
During the campaign, Hackett referred to President Bush as a "chicken-hawk son of a bitch." Later, Hackett posited that the president posed a greater danger to the United States than any other threat.
With his surprisingly strong showing under his belt, Hackett now has a glittering political future, yet he continues to speak in a manner that might be appropriate for a blogger, but seems beneath the dignity of someone who wants elective office. A few days ago, for instance, Hackett called Rush Limbaugh a "fat-ass drug addict."
DOES HACKETT'S RHETORIC portend the Democratic politics of the future as politicians try to sound angry enough to please the party's e-base? Don't bet against it. As Republican political consultant Mike Murphy observes, "The liberal blogosphere continues to grow in power," while acidly likening the situation to an "8 year-old with a machine gun."
While just a few weeks ago it seemed that liberal bloggers wanted Democratic politicians to mirror not just their rhetoric, but their substantive politics as well, the Hackett campaign suggests something else entirely: In spite of being a moderate, bloggers fell in love with Hackett based on little more than a shared fondness for juvenile insults and a mutual loathing of George W. Bush.
Indeed, prominent left-wing bloggers such as Steve Gilliard and Markos Moulitsas are in the process of formulating and promulgating a "litmus test" for Democratic politicians that is literally--and intentionally--devoid of any substantive issues. Instead, the emphasis is exclusively on style. A few of the newly-minted litmus test's requirements are that the candidate "make it clear that he opposes Bush and the Republicans, . . . act like he wants to win, . . . not distance himself from the party [and] be proud to be a Democrat."
The irony of the blog litmus test is that Hackett clearly fails it. A Google search of his website shows that nowhere on the site did his campaign use the word "Democrat." (The only mention of the term on the site is within 19 previously published articles that were laudatory of the candidate that the campaign chose to republish.) As a matter of fact, his campaign's chosen slogan was "Not just for the Red. Not just for the Blue. But for the Red, White and Blue." That sounds an awful lot like the kind of triangulation that would win an approving nod from Dick Morris. What's more, his televised commercials also conspicuously omitted any reference to his party affiliation--which further suggests that Hackett was less than fully "proud to be a Democrat."
There was one area, however, where Hackett probably exceeded the litmus test's requirements: His heated remarks left little doubt that he opposed Bush and the Republicans. But even here the "opposition" was more stylistic and personal than anything else. On the issues, Paul Hackett was a whole lot closer to the Bush administration than he was to the typical left-wing blogger.
The newly-devised litmus test combined with the left-wing blogosphere's full-throated enthusiasm for Hackett suggests that to win the support of the blogging community, a candidate's sole real requirement is that he have his Bush-hating bona fides in proper order.
Whatever their faults, organizations such as the DCCC owe their existence to an ideology. It may be a rickety, tottering ideology--but it's something. The shift from the DCCC to the blogs may signal that the Democratic party will no longer even pretend to be a party of ideas, but will instead become a party of oppositionism somewhat akin to Great Britain's current sad sack of Tories.
That can't be good for the Democrats' long-term health. Or the country's.
Dean Barnett writes about politics and other matters at soxblog.com
Correction appended 8/15/05: The article originally stated that Bob Brigham had repeatedly demanded the resignation of Rahm Emanuel from the DCCC. This was erroneous; in fact, Brigham has only demanded Emanuel's resignation from the DLC.