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Saturday, February 07, 2004

The Dean Dot-Com Bubble

Howard Dean's backers are engaging in a bit of eulogism these days, looking back at the wreck his campaign has become and asking themselves what went wrong, or if it ever was right in the first place. The Los Angeles times writes on one possible cause of the grand self-delusion that the Dean campaign became -- their vaunted Internet backbone:

The loose-knit group of academics, software writers and online commentators have identified a range of factors responsible for the campaign's stumble, from the actions of Dean himself and former campaign manager Joe Trippi to those of the media establishment. But some are also blaming their own habitat, what they now describe as an "echo chamber" of Web diaries and Internet message boards that lulled activists into thinking they were winning votes for Dean merely by typing messages to one another.

"We may have been too glued to our monitors to remember that while elections get won by money … they are also won by people on the ground," John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Internet civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote last week on his personal Web log, or blog.

"We will have to turn off our computers occasionally" to talk to voters in the outside world, he wrote.

Others, of course, have other explanations, including some grassy-knoll speculation that the mainstream media felt threatened by Dean's Internet populism and abused his eyebrow-raising antics in Iowa in order to protect their monopoly on the information stream. It sounds exactly like the type of notion that the Dean campaign floated on occasion, such as the tinfoil-hat idea that President Bush knew about the 9/11 plot before it happened and did nothing in order to destroy our civil rights.

In fact, as the article alludes, the Internet was merely the medium, and the Deaniacs treated it as a shiny new toy -- and they weren't the only ones, either. The novelty of Dean's Internet adventure attracted a number of people, the Times notes, that weren't at all sold on Dean. Some of these donated money and some donated their expertise in computer programming, fascinated by the technical challenge but less so with the political message.

The mainstream media, however, only saw the raw numbers of money and volunteers without analyzing the depth of support it brought, and anointed Dean as front-runner. Far from trying to sabotage Dean's campaign, journalists became fascinated with the best domestic political story in the fall of 2003. Howard Dean occupied the primary focus of the national news providers, eclipsing all other Democrats and even George Bush on occasion. The assumption of being in front afforded Dean the opportunity to be the primary respondent whenever any major event occurred. Far from sabotaging Dean, the media enabled Dean to an extent enjoyed by no other candidate -- and not a single vote had been cast.

In the end, Dean's undoing comes not from the national media nor his campaign's Internet strategy. Both are merely tools for candidates to get their message and themselves across to the voters, the latter a novel and forward-looking device, to be sure. Dean undid himself by being himself: an inconsistent and temperamental governor of a small state who had never played on the national stage before last year, a candidate who abandoned positions opportunistically in order to align himself with the most radical and energetic of the Democratic base, and a speaker given to extemporaneous blunders and disinclined to act immediately to contain their damage. In short, Dean made a poor candidate for national office, and all the media and Internet did was to portray him as he is. For that, at least, we can be grateful to Howard Dean's campaign.

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03:11 PM in DeanWatch | Permalink

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