Friday, February 20, 2004

Howard's End, or a New Beginning?

The role of third parties in American politics, historian Richard Hofstadter famously observed, is to "sting like a bee and then die." And while insurgent Democrat Howard Dean wasn't technically running a third-party race, he was running from so far outside of the single party of big money, pliant politicians and arrogant media power wielded like a nightstick on anyone who dares venture beyond the elite consensus, that it might well have been.

Today we learn that a major union official--who first thought he might ride the Dean coattails, but later clambered off the bandwagon to place his bets elsewhere--thought the guy was "crazy" for refusing his suggestion to back out of the race and go away gracefully. How quaint this is, almost a throwback to the mid-20th century, when squat, built-like-sparkplug union leaders with fat cigars barked orders at would-be presidents. Imagine the nerve of this candidate, refusing to bow to his major investors.

But did Dean also do himself in? Of course he did. As the contributions rolled in like a tidal wave from the web, he got overconfident and even spendthrift, absurdly spending precious dollars on valet parking (!!) for fans arriving for his many live rallies. And anyone who's worked just a single day in the media could have told you that his implacable, self-righteous anger aimed at the traditional media would eventually come back to bite him. In perhaps the most over-the-top detail yet reported about the campaign's touchiness about the media, The New Republic's Ryan Lizza learned, by hanging around the campaign HQ in late January, that one over-caffeinated campaign geek had actually gone to the trouble of writing some computer code that purported to rate the anti-Dean tendencies of various members of the media. Pathetic.

My friend, the uber-geek/single-man-about-town and stylish writer Dan Hanson, happened to mention the other day (in another context) the interesting notion that people invariably tend to overestimate how much technology will change things in three years, while underestimating its effect over ten. I think the concept applies precisely to politics and the new ways of raising money. The Democratic establishment so wary of Howard Power and yes, even the Republicans, are nevertheless going to have to do a serious study of the phenomenon of his campaign, which continued to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars EACH DAY even after he started losing primaries. There's something to be learned there about bottom-up politics coupled with smart use of the web.

Former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, now a talking head on MSNBC, is a smart (some say too-smart) fellow who designed much of the failed strategy. You might call him Dean's Karl Rove (in my favorite anecdote from the campaign, Trippi was so busy and unreachable at the height of the frenzy, that his personal accountant, unable to reach him through conventional means, took to trying to reach him through the campaign's blog chatter). But he also may have taken his newbie client to the cleaners just a bit, drawing a consulting fee percentage for all the ads the campaign ran--a pretty surprising conflict of interest, at best (but dismiss the silly stuff the right wing is pushing about how the billings were $7 million. The bulk of that figure included the money actually paid to broadcasters for the commercials, with Trippi's consultancy merely being the pass-through conduit. Details, details...).

Anyway, Dean, defiant as ever, is going down in blazing glory. Now, as even some of his most once-ardent supporters are referring to him as "a vehicle, not a destination," the candidate himself is boasting that his cause has helped awaken the Dems from their slumber. And he's probably half-right. Kerry at least looks awake now, no longer a candidate for the embalmer. But that's hardly to say that he's caught fire. The poor fellow, in the supple coinage of The Atlantic's Jack Beatty, continues to bury "his applause lines in the gray lava of his monotone." And if you happened to catch his acceptance speech the other night in Wisconsin, you might have noticed the hilarious way in which his batty wife visibly recoiled from his awkward smooch for the cameras. Not sure the country's quite ready for four years of this odd couple.

Perhaps the most interesting observation came from Trippi himself, who made this point at a conference the other day:

I fervently believe that we're at a pivotal point in our country.
Broadcast politics has failed us miserably; failed the country
miserably. You have no debate, real debate going into the war. There
was a never real debate about the Patriot Act. That debate isn't
happening anywhere in the country except on the Net really.
There is only one tool, one platform, one medium that allows the
American people to take their government back, and that's the Internet.
It's going to happen because millions of Americans decide to act in
concert together to change America's politics.
And let me tell you something. I said this before. No one is going to
change the country for you. We're going to have to do it for ourselves.
No knight on a white horse in shining armor is going to ride into
Washington by himself and change that place. Not going to happen. He
can be as well meaning as he wants to, it's not going to happen.
There's only one force, it's us, it's the American people, and this is
the place, this is the platform. It is the Internet that gives them the
power to come together as one community and take their country back.

I'd be hard-pressed to disagree with that. You?

And speaking of Dan Hanson, that object of amorous desire among all East Side Irish lasses, his long-awaited first piece for Cleveland Magazine (he's long been the tech editor and columnist for sister pub Inside Business), on the subject of online dating, is an enormously interesting piece of work, rich with his signature self-deprecating humor but also shot through with a kind of oozing humanity and warmth, a tough balance to pull off. In just a few words, he brilliantly describes the awkwardness inherent in meeting a first date: "I’m not sure whether to shake hands, hug or pat her on the head, so I think I manage a combination of all three."

As the oldest living American who can get away with using the word "dude" without managing to sound silly, Dan utterly resists classification. Is he half geek, half writer? A technology guy who writes about it? Or a writer steeped in geekiness? Who knows, and who cares? This piece is merely the latest in a long line of writing projects in which we have watched him blossom before our eyes, steadily becoming surer and surer of his skills, branching out to new topics and different styles, but always delivering highly readable gems. Hats off, Dan...


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