Politics 2.0

Does this make the Internet’s influence on politics official?  Today it was announced that Yahoo and Slate will be joining The Huffington Post to host the first two online-only debates for the 2008 presidential candidates.  Both will be in the fall and there will be one for each party.  Charlie Rose will moderate.

Candidates will participate online via streaming video and questions will be submitted from the public over the internet.  No word yet on who will participate.

So, have we reached the utopian vision of democracy described by the founding fathers?  Or is this just another gimmick to grab attention in the over-saturated media.  I’d like to think that this is more of the former, but really it’s more of the latter. 

The campaigning for this year’s election has already gotten out of hand, with candidates announcing their runs extremely early using all the latest technological bells and whistles.  This is just another way to keep the candidates, and the election (as well as the outlets sponsoring the debate) in the media spotlight.

Maybe by taking advantage of the internet’s interactivity these debates will attract more young voters and encourage them to engage in the political process.  That’s my hope–but only time will tell.

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Honest Abe

Apparently, George Bush does not see his unwillingness to change course in Iraq as being stubborn.  Rather, he’s sticking to his principles, just like Abe Lincoln did during the Civil War.  Needless to say, this statement confounds me—from the preposterous comparison to Lincoln, to the non-existent parallel drawn between the Civil War and Iraq.

Bush made the comparison yesterday during a tour of the oval office with a group of seniors and advocacy group leaders, coinciding with a meeting on Medicare’s drug benefit.   Obviously, this is a political photo opp—I am surprised that he would be so frank during this type of event (at which Iraq wasn’t even being discussed).

President Bush really believes that History will justify his unpopular decisions.  I don’t agree. Perhaps a better parallel would be Nixon’s administration, a man people still see as synonymous with “dirty tricks” and “liar.”   Lincoln was locked in a conflict that created a constitutional crisis for the U.S. and threatened the country’s existence.  Bush did not have the same imperative behind Iraq.  Much like his remarks last week, I think this is a big communications faux pas.  It comes off as arrogant and makes Bush seem like an egotistic simpleton.  

In the AP’s story, Bush states he would not sacrifice his principles for political popularity.  He’s quoted saying, “It’s a struggle for some.  It’s not for me.”  This brief statement, during a routine event, offers an enormous amount of insight into the way the President thinks.   

Bush has been increasingly vocal lately about his feelings behind his decisions.  I wonder if this results from recommendations from advisors, or whether Bush is getting sick of defending his administration and is just speaking his mind.

You shouldn’t run the government based on polls—but sometimes listening to the other side can help.  

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As a Mule

Bush’s stubbornness continues to surprise me.  Today, he reiterated his confidence in Gonzales and continued to speak out against calls for Gonzales’ resignation.   He was happy with his testimony last week and felt it showed that Gonzales had done nothing wrong (I guess wreaking havoc on the foundations of our government isn’t technically a crime, so it’s all good).   This follows Friday’s statement of support.  Does the White House even get C-Span?  Maybe Bush was busy playing Risk when the testimony was being shown.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who questioned Gonzales, felt he should resign.  He didn’t answer their questions, and the answers he did supply were misleading.  Yet, Bush called him, “Our No.1 crime fighter.”  OK.   Any credibility Bush had left has just vanished.

Loyalty is important in politics.  You don’t want to be seen as a fair-weather friend who will hitch his star to whoever the public likes that day.   Bush sees loyalty as the most important characteristic someone can have—and he intends to stay loyal to his friends.  But this is just political suicide.   He’s already facing criticism on so many fronts, he should just cut his losses and have Gonzales resign.  Guess what?   Your administration has already been irreparably undermined.  Might as well save face while offering your friend the opportunity to salvage a small bit of his dignity.

It seems as if the Bush Administration is operating in a communications vacuum.  They’re at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from politicians who design platforms based on focus groups and surveys.   They no longer care what the public thinks—or even their own party.  They feel that they have selected the right course and will not change.   While it’s admirable to see an institution refuse to be bullied by public whim, the President serves the citizens and should make an effort to consider public opinion.  Not doing so at this point just adds to the public’s disillusionment with the President, and makes our leaders seem even further removed from the people they serve.   Bush’s resolve has transformed into foolishness.

The AP today published a list of senior administration officials who have left as a result of controversy, or whose terms had been tarnished.   It’s a sobering read.  In addition to headline-grabbers like the Libby and Abramoff scandals, there are a number of less glamorous infractions, such as the political maneuverings of the Chief Administrator at GSA, that make you question the integrity of the administration.  

Sure, politics and scandal go hand in hand.  There have always been accusations and rumors about politicians.   But to reach the point when a national news wire is featuring a laundry list of your sins, you’ve lost control.  Ironic, considering how deft the administration seemed at pulling the strings in 2000.   Dirty dealings are common in DC.  Have we just reached a point in history where it’s impossible to hide them?

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Crow’s Nest

Maybe I am naïve.  Maybe once you reach a certain level of power or notoriety, you just don’t care anymore.   However, I find it hard to believe that Bush, Rove and Cheney have not surrounded themselves with the best consultants money can buy.  Too bad they don’t take their advice.

You don’t get to Karl Rove’s position by being politically inept.  But he seemed to make a rookie mistake at last week’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.   When confronted by Sheryl Crow and Laurie David on environmental issues, the President’s deputy chief of staff lashed out.  In a room full of reporters.   At an event that has, in the past few years, been covered heavily in the news media. In my humble opinion, that is not a good move.

In addition to being surrounded by the media’s most powerful eyes and ears, with today’s technology, no matter where or who you are, whatever you say can feasibly wind up online in some form.   This is especially true if you’re seen as the shadowy puppet-master of the current presidential administration.

Of course, Crow and David reported on the incident on the Huffington Post web site, and then gave numerous interviews.   Granted, Rove probably felt that it was not an appropriate venue to be confronted on policy issues.  But if you’re in the public eye, you should try and keep your cool.   Rove, and his handlers, should know this.  After all, just last month rapping Rove turned up on YouTube.  Nothing happens behind closed doors anymore and if you want to be successful, you have to remember that.

Maybe Rove is just tired from defending the administration’s actions.  Or cranky that the media keeps picking on his buddy Bush.   Whichever it is, I am sure his communications people are cringing and hoping McCain breaks out into song again soon.

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Springtime for Politicos

I’ve decided to chalk up all the political verbal hijinks of late to a mass outbreak of Spring Fever.   Nothing else can explain politicians’ recent reluctance to stay on message. 

There’s additional fall-out from McCain’s little tune—MoveOn.org has created a commercial about the incident to run in New Hampshire and Iowa.  The ad characterizes McCain as reckless and states this is not a good quality in a president.  Personally, I am a little more concerned about his lack of common sense. 

McCain is defending himself by characterizing his speech as a casual chat between him and some old friends, not a policy statement.   He believes everyone should lighten up and that what he did was not insensitive.

While, technically, it wasn’t a policy statement and, technically, he hasn’t announced his candidacy for President yet, he needs to realize that, especially these days, every word and movement will be recorded and analyzed ad infinitum.   He has to also consider context—to most people if it looks like a stump speech, and sounds like a stump speech, it probably is a stump speech.   He wasn’t sitting around his rec room with some buddies drinking a beer—he was making a public appearance.  It had to cross his mind that such a flip move would ruffle some feathers.   Who knows?  Maybe he was counting on it to get some press.  His numbers are sliding, but I don’t think this is the way to make them move up (although it seems that his outburst is popular among conservative bloggers).

If McCain wants to make a serious run for the presidency, he needs to play the game.  It may be inauthentic, but the public has been conditioned as to what to expect from the candidate.   They’re not going to accept someone who operates outside this norm.  I also think it is too easy for him to hide behind his “straight-talk” persona.   It seems like he thinks that he can say whatever he wants, and then brush it aside by claiming he’s just speaking to people in the heat of the moment.

The other thing that irks me is his claim that what he said was not insensitive.  I strongly disagree.   I am sure the families and friends of the military men and women in Iraq do not enjoy hearing this man speak so glibly about attacking another country, endangering the lives of their loved ones when they are called up yet again to fight a difficult battle.

In addition to McCain, President Bush got into the act today speaking off the cuff about the rug in the oval office, history’s perception of George Washington and the meaninglessness of polls.   He didn’t say anything offensive or, in fact, too out-there.  It was just odd to see an unplanned, unscripted moment.

Which brings us back to the beginning.  The reason for the growing game of “gotcha” with politicians is simple: modern technology.   Fifteen, 20 years ago we simply didn’t see it—it wasn’t reported on and, frankly, people really didn’t care.  We didn’t have the technology available to record every movement, distribute the footage widely, and view others’ material as well.   Now, we have the internet and You Tube. 

Sound bites and message points didn’t come into vogue until the Reagan administration and the birth of the gaping void that is the 24-hour news cycle.   It’s common knowledge—channels like CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News need content (which draws viewers, who bring in the advertising cash).  They’ll use whatever they can get their hands on, creating news where there is none.   These two factors alone create a world where we are all on stage 24/7 and there is no room for miscalculation. 

As much as I hate to admit it, these faux pas are just politicians being human.  We’d all be hard-pressed to stay on-message, all the time.   But with today’s environment, politicians need to be perfect, all the time.  I don’t think they need to become robotic generators of sound bites, but a little more care and thought behind their words would be nice.

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Dude, Where’s My Flak?

I feel the need to preface this post by saying that I don’t care for canned speeches and I detest the fact that interviews have been reduced to a succession of short sound bites.   That being said, I do believe that PR and communications are the backbone of any political campaign.  Even though most of us can speak and write, not everyone can communicate well.   A politician may have a head for public policy or be a great idea person, but he (or she) still needs someone to help craft and communicate the message successfully.

 

Which is why I am at a loss to explain two incidents over the last week—McCain’s ditty about bombing Iran in South Carolina and Tommy Thomson’s ill-considered insight about money and the Jewish tradition in D.C. (To make matters worse, this occurred at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, not the place you want to break out ancient stereotypes in a stump speech).   Much like Romney’s flubs in Miami last month, I am left wondering, where are the communications advisers to these politicians?

 

While Romney’s comments were obviously researched and rehearsed (which made his mistake even more incomprehensible), McCain and Thompson were most likely speaking off –the-cuff.   I applaud them for that—speaking in bullet points does nothing to educate people or encourage debate.  But, have they had any media training?   Have they been living under a rock lately?  I don’t care if you pride yourself on straight talk; anyone with a modicum of common sense would probably realize that a flip comment about money-making as part of Jewish heritage or singing about bombing Iran (a move with frightening implications) to a Beach Boys’ song is wrong.

 

Sure, there is a repetitive blandness to most of the ’08 presidential candidates’ messages, and we still have to endure many months before we actually get to do anything about it.   A blunt, shoot-from-the-hip approach is refreshing.  But these were just disrespectful and glib.  I would like to believe that the future leader of the U.S., or at least his or her advisers, would be more circumspect.  But maybe that’s asking too much

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The Importance of Being Earnest

I will be the first to say that I am a cynic—which is why I have mixed feelings about John Edwards’ participation in the Service Employee International Union’s (SEIU) “Walk a Day in My Shoes” program last week.   Unfortunately, with all the hoopla around the Imus controversy (and perhaps some campaign fatigue as well), this story didn’t make a huge splash in the media.   But, should it have?

 

The story has potential—Democratic candidates are asked to spend a day shadowing a union member at work and at home.   So far, Edwards is the only candidate to fulfill his commitment—Clinton, Richardson and Dodd have also agreed to participate.  During his day (last Wednesday) Edwards worked with Elaine Ellis, a nursing assistant at a nursing home in New York state.  He met her at home at 5 a.m. and assisted the single mother of four with her duties throughout the day—even shaving a resident. 

 

My gut reaction is that this is just another photo opp; especially with a mass of photographers surrounding him and a camera crew from Good Morning America in pursuit.   How can that help Edwards truly experience a day in the life of a low-wage worker?  Wouldn’t it have been more effective if he did so quietly, without the media? (Who am I kidding—no one would give up an opportunity like this).  

 

And let’s not forget, the SEIU is extremely influential—all of the candidates want its support.  The union’s 1.8 million members are the classic Democratic base of hardworking individuals.  This is just as much an opportunity for the SEIU to flex its muscle as it is for Edwards to shine his halo.

 

Nevertheless, I do think it is a smart PR move.  A lot of people may, and should, question the authenticity of the experience.   But, I admire Edwards’ willingness to roll up his sleeves and actively participate rather than just doing so in spirit only.   The fact that Ms. Ellis contributed a first-person account to his blog is just the cherry on top for the campaign.

 

This was clever on Edwards’ part-especially taking into account criticism from the 2004 election that painted him and Kerry as aloof, elitist snobs.   If he didn’t get to truly inhabit Ms. Ellis’ day, at least he made an effort.  Isn’t that what we all learned to do in elementary school?  Just try?  Good for him.

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