BETTER IN '06 THAN '08. The fight between TNR and Daily Kos made the hop to the mainstream media over the weekend, and both news outlets had their single most blogged-about days this year, according to Technorati. Having gone "berserk" mid-week with his declaration of war against TNR, according to this Newsweek profile, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga appears to have thought the better of it and decided to try and capture some of the controversy-driven traffic by highlighting a welcome to the first-time readers. Most other responses on the site are now tending toward satire or works with lighter touches, while TNR, for its part, renounced one of the e-mails it had published, citing sources who misled its reporter. So perhaps both sides are stepping back from the brink.
Conservative blog Reihl World View has the best round-up of all the facts at issue, which, even controlling for the writer's obvious agenda, are rather devastating, and by and large news to me. All I can say is: Far better for this kind of stuff to break mid-'06, when nothing electoral is at stake and no one is really paying that much attention, than during election season '08, when, instead of just generating round-ups at three-month-old conservablogs, like Reihl's, and a David Brooks column, the story could have mushroomed into 527-funded television attack ads that could have been devastating to a Mark Warner candidacy (imagine the impact of using Armstrong's analysis of the causes of 9-11 to tarnish Warner on national security, for example). Markos has been complaining for some time that he believes Hillary Rodham Clinton's people have been doing research on him. All I can say after the revelations of the past week is: I certainly hope so.
If Warner didn't know, when he hired Armstrong, that this kind of stuff was in his background -- the SEC settlement, the political astrology -- it's a sign his PAC failed to do its own due diligence. There are plenty of successful people in politics with complicated pasts, but they make damn sure to tell their candidates about their backgrounds so that no one is caught flat-footed should anything ever become an issue. It's imperative that Democratic candidates know whether or not there's any risk their candidacies will be damaged in any way by something in the past history of a staffer.
Meanwhile, the reaction on the blogs to the TNR items was disproportionate, self-interested, and ultimately damaging to a potential '08 candidate who many believe provides the best alternative to Clinton for taking back the White House. Had Markos not declared war on TNR, I am convinced the items published on TNRs' low-readership blog The Plank would never had made the jump to the MSM where the broader story has now had a negative impact on Daily Kos' credibility and on Jerome, who's reputation will not, I'm afraid, ever fully recover (the flaky astrology stuff being worse than the SEC settlement from a pure politics perspective). Warner's nascent campaign, meanwhile, has seen a staffer become the main story, which is never good, and which is even worse at a time when most of the public doesn't know anything else about the former Virginia governor.
Just as the Democratic National Committee has been conducting test runs of its 50-state field operation over the past few months, the past week ought to be considered a test run for '08, and for the proposition that blogs can, in fact, successfully help candidates without creating what Clinton White House staffers used to call "distracter issues." Let's just say the test did not go well. The '07-'08 media environment is going to be different for the netroots than the '03-'04 one because of the absence of Joe Trippi or a Trippi-like figure. It is impossible to understate how much of the media narrative about blogs, the netroots and democracy was spoon-fed to reporters by Trippi during the last cycle. Trippi never met a reporter he didn't like, and he would spend hours -- hours! -- repeating the same narrative about the importance of grassroots democracy, the power of technology, and the Internet, even when he had to do it from beneath a ratty blanket on the couch in his office because he was as sick as a dog. Trippi was a Washington player in a way that the new blog gurus are not. And their power to influence media narratives over time will reflect that difference. Where Trippi would share his campaign's story and bottles of wine with ABC News political director Mark Halperin and other media big-wigs at posh trattorias, the new gang has preferred to wage a proxy war on ABC's The Note. That may look like a more authentic approach and expression of deserved scorn, but on its own I'm not sure its going to be all that effective at helping any particular candidate. Perhaps those who are not in the press don't know this, but much of the story of the rise of the blogs was placed as part of an inside game, and not based on reporters suddenly discovering and being sympathetic to a group of newly mobilized outsiders based on their merits.
UPDATED: A number of readers have written in to correct my understanding of the Daily Kos recommended diary system, which is site-reader and not Kos-driven. I appreciate the clarification and regret the confusion. As for the rest of the comments, all I can say is that anyone who doesn't think Trippi played a major role in the rise of the political blogosphere needs to go back and read this piece from three years ago. And anyone who thinks small and objectively unimportant things like someone's belief in astrology don't wind up mattering in campaigns has not been paying close attention to the central fact of American political life, which is that anything you say or do can and will be used against you in a campaign. Example: What's going on in Virginia. Fighting Dem Jim Webb is fighting back against Republican George Allen's latest attack on him by calling him "George Felix Allen Jr." The race for a Senate seat is being fought on the grounds of Allen's middle name. And I agree with Ezra here -- Webb's fighting that battle very well. Or look at 2004: the Dean scream made perfect sense inside the room where Howard Dean was giving his concession speech in Iowa, as I was the first person to report in 2004 (scroll down), but that didn't stop it from becoming a campaign-killing media moment that even his phenomenal New Hampshire organizing could not overcome. Or think of the stupid flap over Naomi Wolf advising Al Gore in 2000 -- opponents do turn staffers and consultants into controversies if they can make it part of a larger narrative. I have great respect for bloggers and media critics who are trying to change that system, but politicians still have to figure out how to work within it, flawed as it is. Being hard-headed about its brutal reality is in no way incompatible with working to change it for the better.