Anatomy of a Netroots Failure

To understand how invested online activists were in the campaign of Darcy Burner -- the bright, tech-savvy, and ultimately failed candidate for Congress in Washington state's 8th Congressional District -- consider what happened in February of last year, when the University of Washington's student newspaper, not normally a major player in national politics, published excerpts of an interview with Burner campaign spokesman Sandeep Kaushik.

Speaking to a student reporter about the nationwide army of liberal bloggers and online activists who have become a force at all levels of politics in recent years, Kaushik said: "They're not at the point yet where they can really swing a race. Part of my job is making sure people know the blogosphere is not the campaign."

Impolitic words in this Internet era, certainly. But as it turned out, he was partly correct. Despite their many successes in 2008, liberal bloggers and members of the online "netroots" could not, in fact, swing this particular race to a candidate who had become a barometer of their clout. They now openly lament Burner's defeat as their biggest failure of the cycle.

Still, back in February 2008, to suggest that such an outcome might be possible -- and to suggest, by extension, that there might be a ceiling of netroots influence at all -- was highly taboo. Kaushik was quickly made to understand that the second part of his statement (that his job was to distance the Burner campaign from the blogosphere) was absolutely incorrect. In a post titled "Loyalty," published in near-immediate response to the appearance of Kaushik's quotations in the student newspaper, Jane Hamsher, of the influential national blog Firedoglake, reminded the campaign that liberal blogs had helped Burner raise nearly $125,000 in the primary. Now, in her opinion, the campaign was biting the online hand that fed it. "I can't think of another contributor who would raise that much money and get repaid like this," she wrote, calling for Kaushik's head. "They need to ditch this clown."

Hundreds of commenters chimed in, many agreeing, and by the next day, the Burner campaign had released a statement distancing itself from Kaushik's words. A copy of the statement now closes that particular Firedoglake comment thread: "We are truly sorry that a part-time political consultant associated with this campaign said things to a college student which reflects poorly on Darcy and her campaign. Please know that they do not reflect her views."

The chastised Kaushik stayed on with the campaign, but the lesson was clear: Attention, and deference, must be paid.

***

One can certainly understand why online activists felt such ownership. While it's true that in the end, traditional liberal power brokers such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and EMILY's List were the biggest outside players in Burner's race (giving much more than the liberal blogosphere alone could), it is also true that the netroots made Darcy Burner. They launched her as an online political phenomenon, campaigned against her primary challengers, made her a unique financial force in Washington state politics, and helped convince Democratic decision-makers to get on board. Bloggers will tell you this. Political reporters of all stripes will tell you this. And while Burner would never describe herself as "made" by the netroots, just try to get her to criticize them, even mildly. She won't. She knows the score.

More important, she truly believes in the power of the Web and feels an affinity with those who are trying to use it to push the progressive agenda. Sure, the Internet didn't end up delivering her to Congress. But she shares the hope of many liberal bloggers that someday, they'll be able to not only launch candidates but also tip difficult races of national importance -- races like hers -- in their chosen direction.

For now, however, Burner's story shows how far there is to go before that hope can be fully realized. She first emerged in 2006, when liberal bloggers vaulted her from political nowheresville into viability as a congressional challenger in the 8th District, an ideologically mixed, suburban-and-rural area just east of Seattle that is home to the world headquarters of Microsoft. Burner had worked as a midlevel manager for the tech giant, but her political resumé was thin: chairing a women's group at work and serving as president of her neighborhood's Community Association. Her opponent, Dave Reichert, a Republican congressman and former sheriff, made experience a key 2006 campaign issue, and Burner lost -- albeit by a notably small margin. The outcome was both heartening and heartbreaking for the bloggers who had showered her with money and support; she had, in the end, earned a higher percentage of the vote (48.5 percent) than had any other Democrat in the history of the district.

In 2008 Burner tried a second time. Once again, the liberal blogosphere showered her with money and enthusiasm (while also directing venom at her enemies, real and perceived). Once again, the race was notably close. And once again, Burner lost -- this time by a slightly larger margin -- in a year when Democrats made huge gains nationally. Now hoping to land a job pushing the progressive tech agenda in D.C., Burner is reaching for the big picture. "We're at an inflection point and everybody can feel it," she told me recently, speaking of the potential for partisan online media outlets to eventually tip a race. "In the long term, I think I'm on the better side of that debate."

In the meantime, however, leaders of the netroots are still smarting and trying to sort out what the loss means for their movement. Essentially, in the Burner case, they started something they couldn't finish. Joan McCarter, who lives in Washington state and posts as "McJoan" on the front page of the liberal mega-blog DailyKos, told me in January: "I'm still in the grieving phase." Matt Stoller, who helped found the national blog OpenLeft and temporarily moved to Seattle in the fall of 2008 to help with the last months of the Burner campaign, still gets angry when he talks about the outcome.

Their grief seems all the more acute because Burner is, in many ways, one of them. She is well educated (she went to Harvard), firmly planted on the left (as a self-styled populist), fluent in new media and its political potential (from her time at Microsoft), and fired up (to such a degree that it got her in trouble on the trail). In the idealistic and meritocratic world of the netroots, where commenters and bloggers rise and fall on the quality of their ideas and passion, these traits make for an instant star. Burner got it.

And yet she didn't prevail at the polls. "She was our biggest failure," says David Goldstein, who runs the liberal Washington state blog HorsesAss.org. "Not in the sense that her race was the easiest to win. But she was the most netroots candidate."

***

On a cold morning in early January, Darcy Burner sat across from me at a small corner table at Chace's Pancake Corral, exactly the kind of working-class 8th District hangout where she might stage a campaign appearance -- if she were still campaigning. Her hybrid sports-utility vehicle was parked outside, still bearing familiar election-season bumper stickers: Barack Obama for President, Darcy Burner for Congress, a Human Rights Campaign logo, another sticker announcing her purchase of carbon offsets for the vehicle. She ordered the eggs cashew and a waffle. It was almost a flashback to her time on the campaign trail, except for the topic of our conversation: why she didn't win.

Like any politician, Burner wanted to focus on the positive. Even though she lost her second bid for Congress by a larger vote margin than her first, she pointed out that she garnered more absolute votes in her second race than had any other Democratic House candidate who's ever run in the 8th District -- a "swing district" that, as far as its House seat is concerned, has never actually swung. The district was created in 1982 and has been trending Democratic for some time, voting for Democratic presidents (Gore, Kerry, and Obama) and a Democratic senator (Patty Murray). But it has yet to send a Democrat to the House; Reichert, a self-styled moderate with plenty of conservative positions and votes, is now in his third term.

As we ate, Burner ticked another item off her list of positives: her "Responsible Plan" to end the war in Iraq, which she created with the help of retired Army general Paul Eaton and released in March 2008, early in the campaign season. It called for drawing down troop levels and refocusing on diplomacy in the region, among a host of other proposals that have become standard Democratic fare. Initially pushed by bloggers, the Responsible Plan quickly migrated into the mainstream media, getting coverage from publications like The Washington Post and Politico. It was eventually endorsed and trumpeted by dozens of Democrats in House races around the country. Eric Massa used it in his successful campaign for New York's 29th District and, Burner said, he recently called her to thank her for her help.

More than just a tribute to Burner's initiative and intelligence, the plan exemplified the netroots' contribution to congressional elections as a whole -- using a few vanguard candidates to set issue agendas for progressives that would be far more daring and unashamedly left than the safe bromides dished out to campaigns by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and national consultants. Ultimately, it contributed to changing the national debate, as Burner describes it, "from stay-the-course or cut-and-run to responsibly ending the war or not."

That's no small achievement. It was not, however, enough to win the 8th District.

***

So what went wrong? Burner told me it wasn't that she was too close to the liberal blogosphere, though that's somewhat debatable. Advisers had urged her to be wary of being perceived as the netroots candidate, and Republicans saw it as a vulnerability, repeatedly pushing the idea that Burner was a willing tool of radical leftist online elites from out of state who were meddling in Washington state politics. In the comment thread of a Washington conservative blog in October 2008, a comment attributed to Reichert campaign manager Mike Shields read: "If burner [sic] wins, she will prove that even a candidate with no experience, no real connection to her community, who is to the left of the local voters, can raise enough money from national activists that they can elect someone in YOUR local district. This will embolden them to futher [sic] this model nationally."

Against Burner, Reichert ran toward the center. He distanced himself from George W. Bush, touted his (limited) bipartisan accomplishments, and plugged his efforts to help restructure the Federal Emergency Management Agency after its failures during Hurricane Katrina. Burner, on the other hand, had a sort of dual persona: even-keeled anti-war Democrat in public, fiery populist online. Occasionally, parts of her personality that her campaign probably wanted to confine to the Web -- as if such a thing were possible -- migrated offline. At one point during the campaign, she told Seattle magazine that Reichert was a "white-haired warmonger." In July 2008, when her house burned to the ground early one morning due to faulty wiring (no one was injured, but the house was a total loss), Burner was photographed wearing a gray T-shirt with white letters reading: < /war >. That's Web-code-speak for "end war," and probably not a slogan many of her district's swing voters were wearing on their chest at the time. (For the netroots, however, the photograph became another "She's one of us!" moment.)

Ultimately, Republicans were able to successfully do with the "Burner is a netroots radical" meme what liberal bloggers had been able to with the Responsible Plan. That is, they got the mainstream media to notice and start chattering. Time magazine asked of the Burner-Reichert race: "Will the Netroots Sink a Microsoft Dem?" The Seattle Times led off Burner's candidate profile by juxtaposing her 8th District image and her netroots persona: "While her campaign talks up her blue-collar roots and family life, online activists from all over the country see her as one of their own."

"We gave the right an easy target against Darcy," McCarter of DailyKos admits. "That's a tough position to be in because we're not going to shut up, we're not going to go away. But, yeah, when we take on an issue for our agenda, we can become a liability."

Additionally, the very traits that made Burner so popular among liberal netizens probably were not so endearing to the blue-collar residents of the southern part of the 8th District (an area that is quite close to the Fort Lewis Army base and therefore also has a significant number of military families). Throughout the campaign, this area in particular provided a very strong reminder that offline politics is not the virtual meritocracy that members of the netroots have created. "It's a symptom of their idealism that they can pick someone like Darcy Burner, who's never run for office, and turn her into a first-tier congressional candidate," a Democratic consultant told me.

When I asked Burner whether being the type of liberal that online activists love made her too far left for her district, she replied by setting up questions she felt more comfortable answering: "Am I a populist? Yes. Do I think that this country needs populists right now? Yes. Do I think Reichert's a populist? Not at all."

This is, of course, a bit of a dodge. For starters, "populist" can mean a lot of things. Burner seems to use the word to signal to the netroots that she's in favor of its "people-powered politics" and to signal to voters than she's on the side of working people. The thing is, in swing districts such as the 8th, "populist" is not always a winning rallying cry and can, in some quarters, mean something closer to "dangerous radical." I asked Burner: Does the 8th District really want a populist?

"I think it's mixed," she said -- a fact that to some would call for the kind of campaign the netroots might deride as overly safe and politically milquetoast. "But I think this country needs more populists," she continued. "And I think this district needs more populists. And, by the way, this district could probably use someone in Congress who understands something about technology, which is the backbone of the economy locally." She sounded a little exasperated, a little too close to the caricature of her as an arrogant geek elite. Perhaps trying to take the edge off, she added with a smirk, "I'm just sayin'."

I could imagine lefty blog commenters around the country cheering at the populism -- however vaguely defined -- and the techno-boosterism. I could also imagine cautious political consultants wincing.

***

Goldstein, the Washington state blogger who was Burner's biggest advocate in 2008, told me that while the netroots were tremendously important in funneling money to her campaign -- more than $750,000 was sent through the ActBlue Web site alone -- they failed completely in their efforts to push people to question Reichert's accomplishments and "moderate" claims.

It was a major challenge. Almost by definition, swing voters in suburban-and-rural districts like the 8th don't read liberal blogs like Goldstein's. Even if they did, he's hardly a mass-media operation; during the final months of the campaign he had at most 3,500 daily visitors to his blog. While blogger fantasies involve a future in which traditional media companies have less of a hold on the mass audience, for the moment, Goldstein told me, "it's not so much about getting around the media... It's about pushing the media. It's about pushing headlines, driving the media coverage, and establishing the frame." Liberal bloggers were able to do this with the Responsible Plan, but they weren't able to do this when it came to tearing down Reichert. They don't explain this as a failure of influence or political savvy on their part; they say the local mainstream media was biased against Burner.

In particular, they blame a late October story by Seattle Times political writer Emily Heffter that questioned whether Burner was being truthful about her Harvard degree. They also decry a decision by local television stations to sell the Reichert campaign ad time on credit -- time he used for tough ads casting Burner, who does in fact have a degree from Harvard, as having lied about her resumé.

The Heffter story arose when Burner, retooling her talking points for a moment when economic fears were trumping all else, said on several occasions that she'd been encouraged to study economics as an undergraduate, and "I loved economics so much I got a degree in it, from Harvard." This statement was on video that was easily acquired, and it was not, technically, true. Burner does have a degree from Harvard. But the degree is in computer science. She also has a "special field" in economics, meaning she took five Harvard economics courses.

Heffter's front-page story cast Burner's economics-degree claim as an exaggeration and explained the "special field" situation. But politics is about what can be said in sound bites and simple language. All Reichert needed for a lethal television attack ad was a video clip of Burner saying, "I loved economics so much I got a degree in it, from Harvard," and one sentence torn out of the Heffter article: "Burner doesn't have an economics degree from Harvard." With everyone debating Burner's Ivy League pedigree, swing voters had another reason to either resent Burner as an elitist or to reject her as a liar.

The fury that Burner and liberal bloggers feel about the impact of the Heffter story and the ensuing television ads is connected to their frustration at being unable to drown it all out with their own version of reality -- and a reminder of the current limits of blog influence. Even though political blogs are powerful and growing more so all the time, they still are not nearly as influential as a mainstream newspaper article that gets turned into an effective television attack ad that gets turned into days of talk-radio chatter (as happened in this case).

If you want to deal with the first link in that chain, the mainstream newspaper, you have to deal in the realm of objective journalism. Which means you have to be able to influence reporters who believe in and practice that kind of writing. The National Republican Congressional Committee -- which tipped off Heffter to the story -- grasped this and made the most of the situation. The liberal bloggers could not. Neither could Burner. After Heffter's story came out, Burner posted the following on her Twitter feed: "It's bad enough Republicans baldly lie. But the MSM press aids and abets. I am, at this moment, glad both institutions are failing." She also told Heffter herself that she'd been "punk'd" by the NRCC. Not the normal tone for politicians courting good press but fairly typical for the blogosphere.

Liberal bloggers do face serious long-term challenges in reaching a mass audience that includes swing voters, but it doesn't help their cause when so many of their current media-relations problems are self-inflicted. While they and their favored candidates may indeed be some of the smartest people in the political arena at any given moment, you don't win friends and influence mainstream reporters (or blue-collar voters in the 8th District) by giving them the very clear sense that you think they're stupid -- or, as OpenLeft's Stoller described the premise of this story during our interview, "kind of dumb." I am not alone in falling on the wrong side of a Manichean, blogger-enforced divide and ending up cast as an incompetent enemy, simply for having asked questions that Burner's blog supporters don't like. Stoller -- who told me point blank, "You don't like her, and you don't like us" -- believes this attitude is justified, because deeply, and apparently before all else, he believes in pushing forcefully against centers of power that are perceived to be hostile. "Ultimately, saying 'don't push on centers of power' -- I don't think that's going to lead you anywhere," he said.

Well, sure, politics is about the exercise of raw power. But the Burner campaign's successes and failures prove that bloggers don't have it in sufficient quantities -- not yet, anyway -- to behave as if they can dictate the terms of the debate and to condescend, you-got-punk'd-style, to those they need to persuade. They misunderstand human nature if they think that people will be persuaded after a good talking-down to.

To put it another way: In this race, it sometimes seemed as if the bloggers' deepest dream was to no longer have to deal with the stupid people in politics. If only that were possible.

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