The infrastructure of the new political message machine

This post has two real online stimuli and a bunch of offline ones, although it is not clearly apropos of any:

The broader point that I am going to try to make is that the political blogosphere is in profound flux, and the constants have more to do with the information that it processes and exposes than the people who are doing it. This is part 1 of 2. The second post will be about the changing political blogosphere.

My point is about how campaigns and interest groups inject information into the political debate. And where the people are. I took this to be the discussion that Patrick was really working on. Patrick said:

The new progressive movement started with guys like Atrios, who then got picked up by Media Matters. Dozens of lefty bloggers are employed by the new lefty infrastructure. As far as I know, Erick Erickson at Red State, and possibly my Townhall co-bloggers MKH and Matt Lewis, are the only ones employed full time by the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, Blog Division, who aren’t primarily journalists and as such have real freedom of action.

Now, Stoller objects:

Finally, it’s important to realize that there’s been almost no investment in the liberal blogs, which is dramatically different than what has gone on with the right side of the web, where Regnery Publishing literally bought Redstate, Republicans have been feeding Drudge tidbits since 1997, fellowships for people like the Powerline guys are the norm, and even the military is intensely cooperative.  While peripheral groups like the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, and Moveon do deploy capital, actual activists have almost zero support either institutionally or financially.

I side with Patrick on this. A bunch of leading lefty bloggers have been picked up by the ideological media and interest groups. Ezra Klein to the Prospect,  Kevin Drum to the Washington Monthly, Oliver Willis and Duncan Black to Media Matters, Glenn Greenwald to Salon, and Think Progress is a "project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund" (the website even says "Faiz Shakir is the Research Director at the Center for American Progress and serves as Editor of ThinkProgress.org"), etc. (interestingly, The Atlantic has tried the same, with Matt Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan, but none of their "righty" bloggers are really part of the righty blogosphere)

On the right, there has been some of this, but less. Redstate is owned by Eagle and Townhall by Salem. Robert Bluey is now at Heritage, where part of his job — I think — is to inject more Heritage information into the blogosphere. Are there any other major examples? (Ed Morrissey to Blog Talk Radio seems related but I don’t know how to parse)

So let’s be clear what has happened. Media Matters and CAP were started — to explicitly critique and shape the mainstream media — and hired a bunch of good bloggers … to blog, often with MM and CAP talking points. They are distribution mechanisms. Some of the lefty media has also hired good bloggers … to blog. The only person who I can think of who has gone from blogging to the righty media is Dean Barnett, and he no longer blogs.

On a broader level, what has happened is that a certain component of the research departments of the DNC has been outsourced to CAP, MM, and TPM and they have created distribution channels to move that information. The RNC and our campaigns have to worry about "no fingerprints" when they move negative material. The entire distribution mechanism on the left is built around this problem. These groups can also attack the the White House. Let’s be clear. The DNC the congressional Democrats don’t have to worry about fighting back against the White House. CAP, MM, and the blogs do that for them. There is no similar capacity on our side.

I want to step into history for a moment. Similar things have been done in the past on the GOP side. In 1982, the Washington Times was started to, in part, get the Reagan message out. Heritage helped give analytic firepower to a GOP congressional minority. One of the great untold stories of the Gingrich Revolution is the relationship between Heritage and the GOP congressional majority. Prior to 1994, congressional committee staff ratios were sometimes as high as 10-1 in favor of the Dems. (now they are about 2-1, in favor of the majority, with a couple of exceptions) Heritage allowed congressional Republicans to have the analytic capacity to fight back. When the GOP took over in 94, they slashed staff levels. In many cases, the Democratic committee staff fell by over 100 people. And we still had Heritage, while the Dems had no analytic capacity. But they had the administration which can crunch its own numbers and do its own credible analysis.

Two other interesting side effects of the role of Heritage. The first is that Heritage supports the Republican Study Committee and the Senate Republican Steering Committee, the two conservative caucuses. One, of several, reasons that the congressional GOP moderates lose so many fights is that they are opposed by significant analytic capacity. The second is that  Hill staffers can download talking points and give them to their boss. This means that GOP Hill staffers tend to be — and can be — more politically-oriented and less policy-oriented. That is one source of GOP message discipline.

It wasn’t until the Dems lost the White House and the Congress, that they realized that they needed organizations like CAP. And CAP, unlike Heritage, focuses on the media.

Stepping back from history, into today, conseratives and Republicans have not built the message distribution mechanism. On today’s memeorandum leaderboard, ThinkProgress is #6. It is a thinktank. If you combine the results for TPM, TPM Muckraker, and the Horse’s Mouth, they are almost tied with ThinkProgress. Information is produced by those guys.  Combining the two of those, only NYT and WaPo initiate more stories. And all of those are framed, very, very effectively, by bloggers who work for Media Matters.

Now, conservatives have alternative media outlets that can move our message, when we have them. Rush, Fox, etc. But those don’t drive news, they drive opinion, and you need both. Blogs are important because they drive news. Therefore, it is clear that we need a mechanism to drive the news cycle. Some of that will be informal coordination. Some of that will be a mechanism similar to CAP, MM, and TPM.

We have done this before, but only when out of power. It will develop. But it sure would be handy to have before then. It strikes me that there should be plenty of soft money willing to demonstrate that Hillary Clinton is a crook or that the corruption of congressional Democrats makes John Doolittle and Jack Abramoff blush. But the guys with the cash are sitting happy because their guys are, for now, in power.

Grasping new tools

As my friends Patrick Ruffini, Rob Bluey, and Justin Hart have pointed out, a bunch of us organized a new media training workshop at Heritage, sponsored by Google, on Wednesday. It was a success. About 200 people attended. It was truly extraordinary.

The goal, more than anything else, was to begin a discussion on how organizations, candidates, etc. can move move messages and engage people on line. We are planning to continue this in several forms:

  1. Smaller workshops for congressional staff, campaigns, and interest groups in Washington. We need to build their effectiveness.
  2. A road show. As a number of us have pointed out, the problem is less acute in Washington than it is in the state capitals and municipalities around the country. Simply put, if we had 100 more people like GraniteGrok and GilfordGrok — politically active, smart, technologically savvy, and very, very dilligent online activists –, Republicans and conservatives would be in a much better place.

Ultimately, this is a human resources and a skills question. We also need online tools like RightRoots, but you cannot produce information and framing of information. Ultimately, at all levels, the left is successfully framing the messages, especially at the local level, where the quality of reporting is lower, the amount of genuine news content is smaller, and the ability to speak directly to readers is larger.

One of the leading lefty blogs, Atrios, made an important point that we should keep in mind:

Now that’s not how I see things as I think blogs should be seen more as an opportunity to influence media coverage and narratives, as well as helping to stitch together a broader-based political movement.

But it isn’t very surprising the Democrats don’t really understand how blogs work within the media, as they’ve long failed to understand how the media works generally. So it’s difficult to communicate and explain the "good" the blogs can do when a lot of them just see us as a noisy sometimes-pain-in-the-ass. This isn’t true of everyone in DC, of course, but one has to remember that of congressional staffers are often shockingly young and really can’t be expected, no matter what their talents, to have a grip on all this stuff in a sophisticated way.

I think that we should take this and separate out his points.

First, blogs are a media tool. They have fundamentally changed the economics and ecology of all types of information in our society. The Democrats have an apparatus to move the media narratives to the left. Without a comparable force pushing back, the media and their narratives will go there. And the only way that we can apply that pressure is to develop bloggers at the grassroots and train staff to work with those bloggers effectively.

Second, movements use contemporary tools that match their constituencies. A number of liberal bloggers have told me that they feel like Barack Obama doesn’t care about them because he thinks that he can get his attention somewhere else. Well, he is getting the level of mobilization that he needs from  young, rich  activists through social networking tools like facebook and African-Americans through email. He is building a new movement. It looks like it may be going nowhere in the short term, but it may in the long-term. When conservatives figure out how to add to our coalition, we will use the tools of the day. And we will help build those tools and have the experience to maximize them.

In the end, football comes down to blocking and tackling. In politics, that means:

  1. GOTV. The RNC and the state parties are better at that than anyone else right now, if we can get the volunteers.
  2. Fundraising. We aren’t looking so good, but it is clear that "online" fundraising isn’t the answer, or the difference.
  3. Media. We are losing here big time.

Our effort on Wednesday is the beginning of a long, slow, necessary, and, ultimately, very valuable process to move on the third.

When is Thompson going to get the space to announce?

So I was reading all the news about Alberto Gonzalez’s resignation. Unless the White House never really nominates someone — highly unlikely — the news up until September 11th is going to be focused on the new nominee.

So how is Fred Thompson going to announce and get any attention? Especially if he is not participating in the September 5th debate, which I will be going to.

After September 11th, there is going to be 3 weeks of Iraq. And what’s Fred’s position on Iraq? He’s going to have to say

Can Thompson survive a month of minimal attention? If Iowa is in December, can he really kick off his campaign in October? I hear that he is not hiring much staff in these early states.

This isn’t going to help his expectations problem, which Mike Huckabee was kind enough to point out.

YouTube debate splits elites and base. That’s good

Now, I was not a big fan of the CNN/YouTube debate. I largely agree with the criticism that CNN used their editorial ability to pick questions that they couldn’t ask as reporters. That said, I was struck by something this morning. Somehow this seemingly trivial debate managed to get Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to talk about a real difference of policy and philosophy, instead of a stylistic one: whether Presidents should talk to bad countries. This real policy question has been debated for a full week now between Hillary and Obama, making the front page of the Post.

Not only the front page of the Post, but two opinions today. And yesterday two candidates from the other party, John McCain and Mitt Romney, have even gotten in to the discussion.

I think this is a real philosophical debate about foreign policy that cuts to a real fracture in the Democratic Party between (responsible) foreign policy elites and one  part of the liberal faction of the party base. And it took real people to ask this question. Why? Probably because the press is part of the same elite opinion formation apparatus as everyone else. (incidentally, that’s why they didn’t ask questions about Iraq. Very few serious people were asking questions about Iraq, so the press didn’t either)

In hindsight, it appears that the debate teased out a real difference between the elites of the Democratic Party and the base. That’s exactly what this debate should have done. This gimmicky debate has resulted in the first real large-scale policy clash of the 2008 cycle. Something that 8(?) media sponsored debates couldn’t really achieve.

Just imagine what kinds of exciting questions could be asked in the GOP debate.

Is it any surprise that the people who are running essentially against party elites like John McCain and Ron Paul are interested and Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney aren’t? Is it any surprise that the self-identified arbiter of conservative elite opinion, Hugh Hewitt, is opposed?

I think that means I have changed my mind on this. Let the debate go on! I guess that I am with Patrick Ruffini on this.

Romney campaign official calls Brownback “bottom feeder”

UPDATE: GOPProgress and Jim Geraghty have now written on this.

Earlier in the week, Mitt Romney released his National Faith and Values Steering Committee. In doing so, he entered a brave new world. Four of the people on the list are bloggers:

– David French, Senior Counsel, Alliance Defense Fund, Tennessee 
– Nancy French, Author, Red State of Mind, Tennessee 
– Justin Hart, Vice President of Communications, Lighted Candle Society

– Jason Bonham, Illinois State Director, Legacy Law Foundation, Illinois 

Nancy and David French write at Evangelicals for Mitt. And Justin and Jason founded and write for My Man Mitt. Now, my question is: will the campaign be held accountable for what these bloggers say? After all, they are now deputized by the campaign itself as spokesmen on "Faith and Values."

Well, Jason Bonham really classed it up today. He called Sam Brownback a "bottom feeding candidate" and posted a picture of a bottom feeding fish. If Jason were a campaign staffer, he would be fired.

So how will the Romney campaign respond? This isn’t quote Amanda Marcotte material. But this is pretty offensive. Presumably, if the Romney campaign has any decency, Jason will be removed and disavowed form the campaign.

Of course, these bloggers have said other deeply offensive things. Let’s see how the Romney experiment goes.

In any case, if this is the kind of "Faith and Values" that the Romney campaign has, I say, "no thanks."

Romney pro-standing?

This is scathing live blogging about Romney from Ana Marie Cox, no serious person. (H/T to GOP Blue at GOP Progress. )

8:23 PM Gilmore ALSO STANDING. Mitt Romney totally flummoxed, can’t remember what polling said about standing versus sitting.

8:31 PM Romney’s decided to stand. He’s not going to apologize about becoming pro-standing. He’s been standing, in his heart, for a long time. Really, he’s a lifelong stander. Small varmint standing, mostly.

Ouch!

Romney losing public image: Selling snake oil or used cars?

In The Way to Win (a great book, buy it!), John Harris and Mark Halperin talk about one of the greatest risks of the "Freak Show" is losing control of your public image. I have been struck watching the aftermath of the South Carolina debate that this might have happened to Mitt Romney. Have Mitt Romney’s best attributes, his good looks, communication skills, etc., been turned into a negative?

Check out these recent statements from NRO (weren’t they early cheerleaders?), Chris Cilliza at WaPo, or Dennis Miller on Fox, and decide for yourself.

Some say Romney is selling cars, like Jonah Goldberg:

What Do I Have to Do to Put You in this BMW today?

Or Chris Cilliza:

Romney can appear more like a used car salesman — telling the customer whatever he or she wants to hear to close the deal.

Dennis Miller thinks that it is snake oil:

"Romney has sort of slithered around a little. When you look that good. And you slide it around a little, there’s a snake oil salesman vibe about him that might be a little weird for me."

Romney calls press unfair; Tries to emulate father

Mitt Romney is doing himself no favors these days. Whether it is his lifetime hunter gaffe, his confusing French marriage law for fictionalizations of the Book of Mormon, or calling a ridiculous sci-fi book his favorite novel, he can’t keep his foot — in a silver space boot? — out of his mouth.

So Romney goes on the offensive, not against the foot in his mouth, but against the press:

"What I find interesting is, had I been pro-life and then changed to pro-choice, no one would ask the question," the former Massachusetts governor said on Fox News Channel’s "Hannity and Colmes." ”But if you go the other direction, as I have and as Ronald Reagan did and (former Illinois Rep.) Henry Hyde and (former President) George Herbert Walker Bush, it’s like the media can’t get enough of it: ’Oh, well, why did you change?’"

Did Romney even notice the question that Chris Matthews asked at the debate:

Governor Romney, in recent months, you’ve said you were, quote, "always for life," but we’ve also heard you say you were once, quote, "effectively pro-choice." Which is it?

This isn’t about the press. This is about what comes out of his mouth. And it looks ridiculous when he panders and spins and sticks his foot in his mouth. This could well kill his presidential campaign, like it killed his father’s. Another case of Romney emulating his father:

Romney was asked which president he would emulate should he be elected in 2008.

"Probably my dad. I loved my dad. And he’s my hero," Romney said.

His wife, Ann, who was sitting beside him, interrupted and said, "Isn’t he asking you to pick a president?"