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Hillary’s Blog Dilemma

In the post below David D. Perlmutter, a professor in the KU School of Journalism & Mass Communications, and author of Blogwars, looks at how blogs undermined Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Read other blog posts by Perlmutter here.

When I am interviewed, I am often asked to define the political “power” of weblogs in the 2008 election. The answer is complicated because “power” is an ambiguous word. There are many political powers and influences possible for any political actor. Also, blogs do not stand alone. They are part of a vast array of new political social and interactive media like, say, YouTube.

But one answer I can give is this: Look at what happened to Hillary Clinton. In January 2006 I wrote a post on my personal blog titled: “Clinton’s Blog Dilemma: Are the Grassroots Burning?” It was widely cited because my thesis was that although Senator Clinton was far ahead at the time in money and polls, there was a hot resentment and angry sniping going on against her on many prominent left or liberal political blogs.

I wrote specifically that:

blogs can be a loyal constituency, but not an unthinking one. Political bloggers tend to be passionate, idealistic about their politics, and less forgiving of the gamesmanship, issue flopping, expediency, rhetorical hedging, “message discipline,” “good optics” and compromise on positions that is part of normal politicking for office.

Then I argued that Hillary Clinton faced a conundrum due to this fact.

As of January 2006 she had the largest war chest, the highest name recognition and topped ratings in national polls of any Democrat in the pool for a possible presidential bid. Normally that would allow a candidate to “play to the middle.” Susan Estrich, in her book “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” argued that she was the perfect candidate because, “[W]hich of your safe white men are going to excite the base the way Hillary does, so they can spend all their time in the middle? I’ll answer: None.”

But in fact, the base, as reflected in leftblogs, is hardly cheering on the junior senator from New York.

As Mickey Kaus comments on Estrich’s point: “Exciting the base is not something Hillary Clinton has been doing a lot of lately! I doubt that the Democrats’ ‘base’ will forgive her for her Iraq vote even if the war turns into a relative success. Suppose that happens–what’s she going to do, run on a campaign of ‘I told you so’? That’s always a turn-on for the die-hards!”

Indeed Clinton is faring poorly among the left/dem/liberal blogs and partisans precisely because of her consistent attempt to steer a “middle” policy course and win swing voters. As one Washington Post headline put it: “Clinton Angers Left With Call for Unity: Senator Accused of Siding With Centrists.” And Cindy Sheehan, the Gold Star icon of the anti-war left, is calling her a “warmonger” and setting up a “camp Casey” outside HC offices. Leading the leftflank’s disparagement was the King of the leftbloglands, Kos himself.

My conclusion at the time: Politicians have always needed to balance the base and the middle. Blogs make this tension, if not more difficult, more public.

I don’t claim that this post (now more than a year old) constituted a prediction or prophecy, but it is a fact that Hillary was considered the “inevitable” Democratic nominee up through late 2007.

I do think that when the history of the campaign is written people will note how the colossus of the Clinton campaign was first undermined by the leftbloggers. They had their doubts and an agenda of complaints about her; they kept hammering away. They got press attention and they stimulated (and hosted) conversations among party activists.

It is too much to say that Clinton was stopped by blogs as much as it is to say that Barack Obama’s MySpace page won him Iowa. But blogs mattered; they still do. That’s power.

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