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Jewish World Review July 28, 2004 / 10 Menachem-Av, 5764

John H. Fund

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Caught in the Web: How Democrats mobilized online and other campaign tales | To paraphrase Mark Twain, everyone talks about the Internet but few know what can be really done with it. Joe Trippi, the political consultant who helped turn Howard Dean into the front-runner for the Democratic nomination--only to see such pre-eminence vanish with the "scream" melt-down--is certainly an eyewitness to its power.

In March 2003, Dr. Dean's merry band of Web warriors began an innovative Internet outreach effort that soon captivated much of the antiwar Democratic left. Over the next year, the campaign raised more than $50 million--most of it through donations of less than $100. Thousands of people used the candidate's Web site to enter their zip code and hook up with fellow Dean voters in their neighborhood.

Mr. Trippi's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is a sometimes breathless account of the roller-coaster Dean campaign, a blur of airports, cups of stale coffee and computer geeks crashed on couches. But Mr. Trippi recalls certain moments of crystal clarity. He was being interviewed over the phone by National Public Radio when he started to see, on the computer in front of him, the counter recording the number of Internet donations "start to roll like a frickin' gas pump on Labor Day." He soon learned to gauge the response to any Dean-related appearance in print, television or radio through the increase in donation traffic and could plot which media to use for big fund-raising pitches.

But all the success in raising funds, recruiting volunteers and stirring Internet interest created an illusion of Dr. Dean's inevitability. People who wanted a Democrat in forceful opposition to President Bush gravitated to him, but their support was shallow and evaporated as voting neared and they took a close look at his electability. "A lot of what the campaign achieved in lowering the threshold to contributing created a false sense of broad enthusiasm," Dean Web enthusiast Clay Shirky has written. "Skepticism is a hard virtue to program into software or people."

Despite the bursting of the Dean bubble, Mr. Trippi's team did change campaign politics in fundamental ways. "If John Kerry ends up in the White House," he writes--referring to the anti-Bush firestorm that the Dean campaign helped ignite and to the fund-raising techniques it pioneered--"it will be in large part because of Howard Dean." Still, he worries that Mr. Kerry is too hesitant to engage people in the kind of free-wheeling style that was so much a part of Dr. Dean's big moment. He notes that two months after Mr. Kerry wrapped up the Democratic nomination, he had only 80,000 people signed up on his lists for neighborhood gatherings. Dr. Dean had 165,000 names, "and he wasn't even running anymore."

Mr. Trippi is a savvy evangelist for the Internet, but he stumbles in a tacked on conclusion to his book, where he pitches a paradigm for how business can exploit the Internet. After telling the reader that "I promised myself I wouldn't" tout a series of simple steps to success, he proceeds to do just that by listing "seven inviolable, irrefutable, ingenious things" that business can do "that might keep you from getting your ass kicked but then again might not." Admitting one's ambivalence is honest, but it doesn't exactly inspire confidence. I'd hire Mr. Trippi to run a campaign, but as a business consultant he hasn't finished his own product-development stage.

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Hugh Hewitt, a law professor and radio talk-show host, is as much an evangelist for the possibilities of New Media as Mr. Trippi is, but he believes that conservatives, libertarians and Christians are better positioned to take advantage of them. "If It's Not Close They Can't Cheat" is less a manifesto than a how-to guide for conservatives to become technology-savvy activists for their beliefs.

His 40 brief chapters cover everything from voter fraud to the five levels of political commitment he finds in people. But the heart of Mr. Hewitt's book is his contention that readers and thinkers are increasingly gravitating to the Internet for news, information and opinions. And now anyone with a modem and a few dollars can become his own publisher by using simple software to create a blog--a kind of diary of opinion or a running journal that also provides links to articles and other Web sites. More than five million people have created blogs.

"The world of blogging is where the life of the mind has moved," claims Mr. Hewitt in a statement that is a little frightening to those of us who imagine that the life of the mind still has to do with more than politics and current affairs. Despite such exaggeration, Mr. Hewitt makes a powerful case that blogs are a decentralized discussion forum free from the practical limits that the mainstream media impose on individual expression.

As such, in Mr. Hewitt's view, blogs allow conservative voices to respond quickly to liberal icons such as Michael Moore and to register sharp critiques of politically correct thought. As for electoral politics, Mr. Hewitt agrees with Mr. Trippi that the Internet will empower people in ways we have only just glimpsed.

Of course, while blogs and Web sites can energize all sorts of people behind a candidate, a product or an idea, there still has to be real value if there is to be any lasting appeal. Another lesson we owe Howard Dean.

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©2001, John H. Fund