Thursday, January 29, 2004
I come to bury Caesar...
What a disaster. Joe Trippi quits. Roy "Washington Insider" Neel is hired. Ads are pulled in all seven states holding primaries or caucuses next Tuesday. The staff won't be paid. That soft thud you just heard is another Deaniac falling off the bandwagon. The campaign is broke, and in more ways than one.
Salon very professionally understates a key political liability, writing that, "critics are certain to question whether a candidate who could not manage the estimated $40 million he raised last year is capable of managing the world's biggest economy." But nobody says it better than .jasonblog.'s succinct, "Unless it turns out that he spent all that money we sent him on magic beans that are going to grow into a huge beanstalk of electoral might, I'm through with him."
Though I didn't invest in Dean the way a lot of people did, the spectacle of the last ten days has given me pause. For me, the promise of the Dean campaign was twofold. First, it seemed to offer a model a Democratic candidate could use to outflank Bush's fundraising juggernaut. Dean managed to energize a large cadre of donors and activists with a very small investment of organizational time and resources. Second, I thought that Dean raised the level of public debate in the country by turning his web campaign into a new kind of public space. This allowed his campaign to exert control over the national agenda in a way that limited Rove's ability to frame issues. But the promise of the Dean paradigm is, to say the least, threatened by the catastrophic failures in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the Lyndonville Savings Bank.
There are ample explanations available for Dean's troubles, many of which don't have anything to do with the internet campaign model. The press anointed him front-runner and favored him with a scrutiny that exaggerated and invented flaws. Gephardt launched a kamikaze attack. An account draining strategic decision was made to manufacture shock and awe in Iowa and New Hampshire. And, as the scream showed, Dean didn't always do well on TV. All of this is true, and much more besides.
But because the internet model had such promise it's worth giving it another look. It seems to me that Dean's campaign suffered from two serious problems that are directly traceable to the model. One, I think, isn't a deep problem and can be remedied fairly simply. The other, however, strikes me as much more fundamental.
The solvable problem is that Dean's volunteers just weren't very good organizers. This judgment is based partly on anecdotal reports gleaned from the blogosphere and the mainstream press, but mostly on the fact that their voter assessments in Iowa were utterly unconnected to reality. Since most of Dean's volunteers were political neophytes who had never worked on a campaign, this shouldn't be much of a surprise. Organizing is difficult to do well. More than anything else -- more than training, more than enthusiasm, more than being right -- it takes experience. And the experienced political volunteers weren't, by and large, volunteering for Dean.
This problem might have worked itself out if Dean hadn't become the front runner. If third place had been an acceptable result, his core volunteers could have used Iowa and New Hampshire to gain the experience needed for February and March. More importantly, if the online model were generally adopted, its pool of potential volunteers would quickly become much more experienced.
The more serious problem comes from the decentralized meme that the model imposes on the campaign as a whole. Salon reported today that "internal decision-making processes tended to be chaotic, with top supporters getting contradictory marching orders from Trippi and the Burlington staff in the same day." If you're wondering where the money went, ask yourself how budgetary decisions are likely to be made in that environment.
This problem is deep because decentralization is what makes the web campaign tick. By eschewing centralized control, the online model creates a community with a sense of participation and ownership. The vibrancy of this community accounts for the campaign's ability to generate funds and volunteers. Its very existence creates a public space which makes it possible for issues to be discussed in the kind of depth appropriate to a participatory democracy.
Now, it might be possible to marry a decentralized online campaign to a traditional top-down offline campaign. In fact, it looks like this is what the Dean campaign is going to try to do in the next few weeks. But this is a bad fit for several reasons. Most seriously, it undermines the participatory features of the online campaign which make that campaign attractive. For an online campaign just starting up, this would be fatal. For an established campaign like Dean's, it may be possible to change the conditions of the relationship without alienating the online community.
Another possibility is to divorce the web campaign from the candidate. Then, the model would be MoveOn.org instead of the Dean campaign. The online campaign might still support a candidate from time to time, but the virtual community wouldn't be constrained by the needs of a centralized organization.
While I think that communities like the one surrounding MoveOn.org will become increasingly important parts of the political process, those communities are fundamentally unlike the one promised by the Dean campaign's internet model. One practical difference is that candidates wouldn't be able to rely on the community for the kind of fundraising that Dean got from his web presence. But the crucial difference is that the imprimatur of a viable national candidate bestows a special kind of legitimacy on the campaign's online community.
Let me end by gesturing at the importance of this legitimacy by quoting a passage from John Rawls' Political Liberalism. Rawls wrote, "In a democratic society public reason is the reason of equal citizens who, as a collective body, exercise final political and coercive power over one another in enacting laws and amending their constitution." Participants in both MoveOn.org and in Dean's online campaign engage in public reason in something like Rawls' sense. What I am claiming is that participation in a campaign for political office has a special kind of importance because it is a direct exercise of political power, while participation in MoveOn.org is indirect. That difference is enough to affect the seriousness with which participants can and should regard their actions.