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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Post-modern Politics

Posted by Bob Brigham

There has been a very heated debate between Kos and Zack Exley (spilling over to BOP) concerning the Kerry campaign's use of the netroots. As KE04's Director of Online Communications, Exley is understandably defensive when confronted about the campaign's online opportunity losses. But I think blaming Exley for Kerry's online campaign is like blaming Lyndee England for Abu Ghraib.

The Kerry campaign's lack of netroots understanding was a symptom of KE04's larger disease of failing to run a post-modern political campaign. As I see it, the Kerry campaign made two fundamental mistakes, both of which require that the buck stop with John Kerry.

The first mistake was that Kerry signed up for a 21st century election and hired 20th century management. Bob Shrum and Mary Beth Cahill were both critically unqualified to succeed in a post-modern political world they didn't understand.

The second mistake was that Kerry listened to their outdated advice and refused to provide the leadership America was waiting for him to offer.

For some unknown reason, some of the people who built the Bridge to the 21st Century never crossed the span. Exley brings up one good point that comes close to grasping what really went wrong:

It is a valid criticism of the Kerry campaign that it missed an opportunity to really connect with a whole new world of political activists and build an incredible movement. I agree with that criticism -- and I made it every day internally when I was at the campaign, as many irritated Kerry communications and finance people would confirm.

Though Mary Beth Cahill did work very closely with us to produce those emails, it was not the same as when Joe Trippi used the campaign emails (early in the Dean campaign) to really speak from the heart to supporters. We were one tier down from the actual heartbeat of the campaign at Kerry. It was a real problem.[emphasis mine]

Online campaigning isn't an option like air conditioning or leather seats that can just be added to an otherwise solid vehicle. While a strong online campaign may be indicative of a post-modern campaign, you don't have a 21st century campaign because you have a website. You can't just add features to an outdated campaign, to be successful you need to build your entire campaign by understanding the realities of the world in which we live. This is something that KE04 failed to understand. The people who understood how to interact online shouldn't have been second-tier staffers, but rather the people who didn't understand how to interact online shouldn't have be in charge. It was like hiring a once-was Army General to fight a naval battle. If you don't know how to sail then what the fuck good are your scars?

Let's look at some of the examples of how the Kerry campaign malpractrice began at the top.

KE04 never provided that one critical phrase necessary to break through the clutter of our ad-overloaded lives. Their final attempt, "A stronger, safer America" was almost a parody of how political consulting at the end of the 20th century will be remembered for combining multiple "tested" words into a phrase that had never been uttered by a human. A dozen years earlier, Clinton's "It's the economy, stupid" was gold when it came to breaking through, because it was unique, it didn't sound contrived, and it was very memorable. In fact, a Democrat pioneered the concept of breaking through when FDR chose to speak in the informal for his fireside chats. With all that is going on in people's lives, if you can't break through then how do you expect to connect?

Not only did Kerry fail to break through, but he failed to understand that others could break through. The dinosaurs at HQ saw the Swift Boat ads with their $40,000 bank account and assumed that they were irrelevant. Of course, they learned the hard way that their outdated understanding of political power failed to predict the catapult potential of a bold action. Just like Condi Rice looked to a nation's tank brigades to judge their threat while failing to plan for 20 guys with box cutters, the KE04 campaign miscalculated that the Swift Boaters lack of money would prevent traction with the voters.

Speaking of money, let's talk about Kerry campaign's lust for money. Yes, we've all lost a race because there wasn't enough money for the last mail piece. But it was because of failure to meet prima facia burdens of name recognition in down-ticket races. The Kerry campaign's lust can't be rationalized on these grounds. Campaign's need money to persuade, but the Kerry campaign failed to appreciate political basics enough to focus on winning votes. For them, getting money buys ads that might get votes. This giant chip on their shoulders from the 20th century campaigns they lost was revealed through their entire "try not to lose" strategy -- which proved woefully ineffective in a world waiting on a hero. What they failed to grasp was that their base had more potential as supporters than as repeat donors.

Not only did they waste potential and money on TV, but failing to understand post-modern politics hurt them on the news. The Kerry campaign suffered a disaster when they went down for a week after Reagan died. KE04 hid while every GOP hack in the world related their Gipper stories back to Bush being the heir to the legend. Anyone who ever suggests a campaign should be suspended should be immediately fired for not understanding that post-modern politics occurs all day, every dayĶwith NO exceptions. Not learning from the Gipper-porn week, the Kerry campaign media surrogates were outnumbered at least 2:1 during the our own convention. Doing their best not to notice a trend, the Kerry campaign suffered the same fate during the RNC. With a genius only Shrum could create, this continued during the debates as the GOP fact-checked at a 5:1 ratio while the Kerry media team held back the debate bounce the candidate earned. KE04 assumed that the press would report "the facts" without giving them anything bold enough to earn a spot on the news.

The yester-year consultants even prevented Kerry from making up for their piss-poor understanding of modern campaigns. This occurred every time they held him back. Kerry followed his consultants instead of leading the people. The "try not to lose" strategy focused on not turning people away. Unfortunately for Kerry, in a post-modern world everyone knows the score and those left wondering follow the boldest leader. Worse yet, by convincing Kerry to vote for the a doomed war, they not only undermined his credibility, but additionally neutralized what would have been the winning issue.

For all of this, the buck should stop at Kerry.

But back to the netroots. If the Kerry campaign would have had leadership that understood post-modern campaigns they could have used technology far more effectively. They could have done all of the things Ken Mehlman did as he outperformed Democrats online and in regards to GOTV. But they could have gone even further, they could have built a movement.

I think it is important to have the discussion on how we could have done better online, but let's remember that the internet is only one part of running 21st century campaigns. Hiring 20th century consultants is like hiring the fastest pony express rider as a train engineer. Considering Kerry hired Bob Shrum, some might take the analogy one step further by saying Kerry hired the slowest pony express rider.

The Democratic Party is in serious need of reform and arguing over how we use the netroots won't get us there if we continue to rely on strategists who deploy antiquated campaigns. Yes, Exley could have done a lot more by empowering Kerry supporters. The fact that Exley was too new of a Kos user to even be able to post a dairy proves he did a shitty job. But forget him, I think Kos has the most important view on netroots:

Thing is, we aren't going to put out for campaigns without getting something in return.

This year, the netroots put out because of a very deep hatred of Bush. I think it is accurate to say that Democrats did well online in spite of McAliffe and Shrum and Exley. Likewise, Democrats won many votes in spite of Kerry. When you consider that the only age demographic we won -- the under 30 crowd -- was almost entirely due to the conduct of our opponents you'll see that Democrats are in dire straights.

We can't afford to continue putting individuals unqualified for post-modern campaigning in charge of the future of the Democratic Party.

Posted at 02:05 AM in Netroots | Technorati



The fact that the netroots team was one step away from the "heartbeat" of the campaign is indeed unforgivable. The fact that they didn't reach out to the netroots OUTSIDE of their own website is unacceptable.

But their use of the website, on the whole, wasn't as bad as many would think. (Believe me, this is not going to be a defense of Exley if you don't make it through this entire post)

Maybe it is just my personal experience, but at least in the beginning, they reached out.

I can tell you that I posted something on their forum before the first primary about my Masters Thesis (using non-traditional media as a way to educate an electorate) and I got a PHONE CALL from Dick Bell -- the next day.

To his credit, we had a few long discussions over the phone and email about using the existing technology (and late-night talk shows).

However, most of my ideas about the Net surrounded direct interaction between the CANDIDATE and UPPER LEVEL staff with the netroots. And I don't think that was something the campaign ever did explore.

You are right, 100% right, when you talk about them doing a miserable job communicating with people on a personal level when it came to message. They even did poorly with it on-line, in a medium built for "human" communication. Your example of the final campaign slogan was right on. I will talk more about this when I discuss their blog later.

I will also say that the Kerry campaign did a decent job of organizing across the country using the existing technology. Living in Ohio during the election cycle, I also received a few emails that were not solely about fundraising, but actual information pieces about how and where to get involved -- with specific information about events coming up in my area.

Also, the idea to announce the John Edwards as VP selection via email to supporters was a very good decision as well. Dunno if that was Zack's idea however. Not just because it was novel -- but Lord only knows how many new email addresses they obtained because of it.

Here is where the criticisms begin.

The first weapon of choice for interaction and two-way mass communication is the blog (in my mind). With their blog, I think they failed miserably.

When I would visit the Kerry campaign blog, it seemed as if their posts were nothing more than regurgitated press releases in a more "human voice." Albeit, not much more of a human voice.

On their blog, they failed to solicit ideas and include the netroots in the effort. It was as if they were talking AT us, not WITH us.

I even offered Dick Bell to post on the blog, giving them updates on the ground from Stark County, Ohio -- supposedly the nation's bellwether (WaPo, CNN, et. al). I offered to do it when John Kerry came to town, and George W. Bush; to give a human voice, of a supporter, right in the middle of the mix.

He was interested for a day or two, but eventually never got back to me.

And as I stated earlier, they did not recognize the potential impact of the LEGION of support they had that didn't visit their website every day. They left themselves confined to their own pig-pen. Failed to think "outside the webpage" as it were.

They had that forum, but a forum is not the best way, or even a very good way, to get immediate feedback. People want to talk WITH the campaign, and a blog is the best way to do that.

You can also debate whether or not they learned much about meetups or the get local tools. I think a decent argument can be made for either side.


I laughed when you talked about the fastest horse in the pony express. I think you are on the mark with much of what you say about post-modern vs. modern campaigns. Especially when it comes to staff.

However, in 2004, there is a place for the "pony express" on campaigns.

The biggest problem I see is what you emphasized when you referenced Zack explaining the distance between the inner circle and the "modern" portion of the campaign. The schism becomes even more clear when he talks about the comm. & fundraising people getting pissed at him for his ideas.

I don't know how true that is, but if it is accurate, it also is unforgivable.

Zack's part of the team needed to have a seat at the table. Right next to the Comm. Director, Field Director, Campaign Manager, etc...

He didn't.

There is still something to be said for many of the "old school" tactics of campaigning. Bush Co. hit on it with the exagerated "neighbor to neighbor" strategy.

But right now, not everyone is on-line. And even fewer are involved in the political process on-line. The figures will change as we move deeper into the 21st century -- but for right now -- we need to find that good mix between the old ways of doing things and all of the new opportunities that are out there in the 21st century.

Posted by: Tim T. at December 22, 2004 02:53 AM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

What I don't understand is this.. If I were running for president, and had won the nomination.. who would be the first guy I call up to assist in the campaign?


Of course. I hope the '08 nominee gets the picture.

Posted by: Manny at December 22, 2004 09:50 AM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

Right on about Carville -- sort of. I was a big fan but I heard Carville was one of the Clinonista insiders who said to ignore of echo Bush on Iraq while making it all about the economy. On both these counts, I have to echo one of the wisest posts I've seen on this blog: Kerry was attacking directly and forcefully rather than creating a counter-vision to Bush. Bush was leaving the attacks to his proxies, occasionally stooping to ridicule. Combine this with Kerry's failure to ever really secure a campaing slogan, and hsi failure to use repeition of a few key themes. Hate to say it, but a major policy speech on health care will get you one day of coverage in the NYTimes and less in other papers. I winced every time Kerry failed to explain his "voted for it before I voted against it quote."

Carville would've saved Kerry from that and the Swift Boat Vets, though, and that alone would've won him the election.

Netroots is not something I'm too familiar with, but I can agree that the problem started with the message, and that carried over to online organizing. There were detailed policy positions, yes; but when it came to distributing a flier in Spring, our Meetup group was so disappointed with what was online, we made our own!

Our own local leadership was VERY cautious, discouraging almost any grassroots events before summer and afraid volunteers would get the message wrong. I attended a Kucinich event to flier for Kerry and was accused of being a Kucinich "spy" by our leaders! In Colorado, it was a very insider-driven campaign from the start and the focus was on the caucus even though Kerry had wrapped it up already.

The big question for me is, how do you actually filter out what goes on at the blog level into useable suggestions to the campaign. It seems you need some leadership and hierarchy. I remember wishing I could give a suggestion (i.e. respond to the damn swift boat attacks directly!) ... the website gets so cluttered with thousands of postings, how do you filter out the good ideas?

Posted by: Marc at December 22, 2004 02:29 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

I am glad to see a focus on finding "that good mix between the old ways of doing things and all of the new opportunities that are out there in the 21st century." Any historical perspective makes clear that things change dramatically and stay the same just as dramatically.

Michael Lind has an article in the American Prospect that lays out the 400-year cultural and historical context the future of the Democratic Party is grounded in.

What���s the matter with Massachusetts? The Democrats are far too dependent on it. Go Midwest, young man."

Issue Date: 01.04.05

You may disagree with him, but he makes a powerful case for the continuing influence of the old.

Also, democracy is essentially face-to-face conversation and all politics are ultimately local.


What���s the matter with Massachusetts? The Democrats are far too dependent on it. Go Midwest, young man.

Posted by: Michael Traugot at December 23, 2004 11:22 AM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

I understand your pain...but after reading your piece, it really sounds like you wanted Kerry to be better at getting a message together, which is not a 21st-cenrtury problem, but a timeless one. I'm not really sure Dean did very well at that either. Both of these guys seemed to have narrow bases, and were unable or unwilling to really move from there.

Posted by: Michele K. at December 23, 2004 12:58 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

I posted quite a bit on the Kerry blog. It was pretty messy. Threads would be announced and put up, but the conversation (whatever it was) would just jump onto the new thread and be continued. Think pieces like you see in the Kos diaries just weren't there. Probably most memorable were the solicitations for contributions to the party. These arose from within the blogging community, not the DNC - so far as I know. There was a spirit of optimism, right up to the fateful day. It was my second experience with Web-based campaigning. I'm sure that things will get better. Won't they?

Posted by: moltar at December 23, 2004 02:25 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

This post is dead-on, expcept for a highly disapointing line at the end:

When you consider that the only age demographic we won -- the under 30 crowd -- was almost entirely due to the conduct of our opponents you'll see that Democrats are in dire straights.

This mentality is an affliction suffered by many in the Democratic roots and to an even greater extent by party insiders. There was massive work done to get young voters to the polls, and even more to convince them to vote democratic - a term that we self-identify with in fewer numbers every year.

I worked for almost two years getting Music for AMerica (www.musicforamerica.org) off the ground. As a 527 that couldn't officially talk about candidates or parties, we still reached over 2 million 18-30 year olds with a progressive, issue based message that young people found both culturally and politically relevant to their lives. We've all seen the results - a 10 point break for Kerry, the highest turnout since 1972 when 18 year olds got the vote. 64% turnout in swing states. George Bush and conservative rhetoric and actions helped, but groups like Music for America, Punk Voter and Indy Voter did an enormous amount of lifting in this area.

This is a huge thing and it has been hugely underestimated by both traditional party insiders as well as grass and netroot activists.

I'm currently working on an essay outlining what MfA did, why it succeeded, and how other net activists and insider groups like young and college dems can replicate what we did. I'll be posting it around the blogosphere in the next week.

Hopefully all factions of the party will wake up soon and realize that we turned out this year, but we are not a given in 2006 or 2008 if we feel we are being taken for granted or exploited purely for political ends.

Posted by: Prank Monkey at December 24, 2004 04:23 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

Hey Prank Monkey. I'm sorry, that was a badly worded sentence. The point I was trying to make is that young people were motivated to vote against Bush. MfA did a wonderful job organizing that angst and I love everyone at MfA, it is one of my favorite organizations in the world and the Redwood City team is filled with kick-ass people.

My worry is that many Democratic strategists look at the vote total and think that Kerry came close to winning. Actually, Bush came close to losing.

The youth surge wasn't a surge for Democrats it was a surge against Bush. Since Bush is now a lame duck, Democrats need to figure out how offer a vision that young people will embrace. The DNC would be wise to learn from MfA.

Posted by: Bob Brigham at December 24, 2004 05:18 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

The youth surge wasn't a surge for Democrats it was a surge against Bush.

That is certainly a statement I'd stand behind. Thanks for the clarification.

Posted by: prank monkey at December 24, 2004 06:40 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

I'm glad we're on the same page. Please know that no slight meant against MfA. In fact, I am friends with people who listen to music and care about America...

That, and if I were to bitch about MfA, Molly would kick my ass.

In 1972, everyone talked about the youth surge but it never happened. The Democratic Party turned their back on the baby boomers and by the mid-eighties half were voting Republicans. This year, there was a youth surge and we need to make sure that we actively seek to involve young people in the Democratic Party, hold on to them as they age, a reach out to the younger kids coming up.

Posted by: Bob Brigham at December 24, 2004 08:10 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment