Walking a Fine Line Online
Forget Republicans. Democrats are struggling to satisfy Net activists on the left
Laboring to produce an Iraq bill that will pick up some Republican support, congressional Democrats must also worry about backing from another constituency: the online activists who are becoming the voice of their party's base. With House passage of a bill last week to authorize Iraq war funds on a half-now, half-later schedule, the liberal MoveOn.org is skeptical. Says Executive Director Eli Pariser: "Any money for the Iraq war should come with a hard-and-fast deadline for ending it."
That's going to be tough, since President Bush vetoed the earlier funding bill over its withdrawal deadline. But for all the support the so-called netroots provide-MoveOn alone claims 3.3 million members and raised $25 million in 2006 to help wrest control of the House from Republicans-Democrats are learning that they are not easily placated. And not just when it comes to the war. When Barack Obama's presidential campaign recently took over apage on the social-networking site MySpace that had been run by a freelance supporter, cyberliberals rebelled. Starting from scratch, the Obama-run page has signed up 60,000 "friends," while the earlier page had boasted 160,000. The campaign "quashed not only my right to have this profile," the Obama MySpace page founder blogged, "but the very hope that inspired me to build it."
High-wire act. As Democrats work to harness the power of an online community that could be their greatest asset since organized labor, they are hitting some unexpected bumps. "Democrats walk a fine line in creating a real open community online and using it as another messaging and marketing tool," says Julie Barko Germany of the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet at George Washington University. "You can't control the netroots. They want to be their own entity." Democrats must balance that entity's demands with the need to maintain support from the swing voters who helped return them to power last fall and who may decide the next presidential election. Managing those competing goals will make for a political high-wire act in the weeks to come.
Since the president announced his Iraq "surge" plan in January, congressional leaders have been closely coordinating with antiwar groups in opposing it. That includes MoveOn, founded in 1998 to denounce the impeachment of President Clinton. The group promotes causes like universal healthcare and tackling global warming, but opposing the Iraq war is its top priority. Until now, antiwar groups have been supportive of Democrats, even as leaders on Capitol Hill declined to back measures like troop caps or an immediate cutoff of war funds. The netroots "have been surprisingly close to what we've been advocating," says Matt Bennett of the centrist Democratic group Third Way.
For congressional Democrats, though, the current fight over war funds is a prelude to a bigger debate this fall. That's when Congress will take up the administration's war funding requests for 2008 and when Democrats believe many Republicans will break with the White House and push for an end to the war. "We're in a marathon, and we've just rounded the first bend," says a Democratic House aide of the current war supplemental bill.
For the netroots, however, the moment to end the war is now. "They've been against the war from the start and have been passionately trying to get Democrats elected so they can end it," says a top Democratic strategist. "They feel it's payback time." The Senate is poised to take a different approach from the new House bill, which Bush has already vowed to veto. Still, MoveOn continues to demand that a withdrawal timeline be included.
In the presidential field, the netroots' antiwar fervor has hit New York Sen. Hillary Clinton hardest over her refusal to apologize for her Iraq authorization vote. In an April MoveOn poll, Clinton finished fifth. But Clinton Internet director Peter Daou says the online community is more diverse than it's often portrayed. Daou communicates with bloggers to correct misinformation about Clinton and to try to change perceptions of her. After the failure of the largely Internet-driven campaigns of presidential candidate Howard Dean in 2004 and Connecticut Senate hopeful Ned Lamont in 2006, however, Daou is wary of netroots hype. "Does this energy and enthusiasm [online] translate into votes or contributions?" he asks. "It remains to be seen."
Timeline. Indeed, even as Democrats note that support for ending the war extends well beyond the party's base-a CNN poll last week found that 57 percent of Americans favor an Iraq withdrawal timeline-they privately express fears that embracing the netroots will brand them as radical leftists. After all, the same antiwar activists who fueled Dean's campaign helped bring him down by making him seem too liberal to be electable.
Still, Obama has vowed to use the Internet to attract previously apolitical Americans to his campaign, echoing Dean. Earlier this year, thousands of supporters signed up on Obama's website to throw house parties for him. He raised $6.9 million from online contributors in the first quarter of 2007. Obama chief Internet strategist Joe Rospars, who ran Howard Dean's blog, is working to apply the lessons of Dean's failure to transform online support into actual votes. The major one, Rospars says, is to integrate online activity into field operations through sites like mybarackobama.com. The site allows supporters to create their own organizations while letting the campaign capture their information and monitor their activity. But the MySpace flap illustrates the danger of exerting too much control. "The top-down campaign guys need to learn about working with the bottom-up online community," says Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's presidential campaign manager.
Trippi now advises the presidential campaign of former Sen. John Edwards. But even as his vehement antiwar stance has made him a netroots darling-he finished just behind Obama in MoveOn's poll-Edwards's online support hasn't spilled over to the national polls. That could be a reminder to Democrats that bottom-up online support may not put them over the top on Election Day.
This story appears in the May 21, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.