Friday, February 16, 2007

The bad marriage of candidates and bloggers

When I first launched this blog – one year ago today – friends asked me whether I would be able to find enough news to sustain it. Not a problem. I could be tethered to this effort 24/7, and still lack the capability to keep pace.

Consider, for instance, the episode featuring those two outspoken feminist bloggers who were working for the John Edwards presidential campaign until they wound up in the crosshairs of the conservative nexus. The House Iraq debate hijacked my attention span. But what happened to those bloggers (both of whom resigned this week from the Edwards camp) warrants comment, although not for the reasons cooked up by those who have been assailing them.

Some quick background, in case you missed it: A few weeks ago, Armanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwen were hired in order to aid Edwards’ outreach to the liberal, feminist, and youth-oriented blogging communities. (It’s hip these days for candidates to put bloggers on the payroll, yet it’s also risky, and that’s the key point I will address below.) But soon after Marcotte and McEwen came aboard, some conservative voices cried foul, citing some provocative writings that the two women had previously posted on their personal blogs. The critics, who denounced the posts as insulting to Catholics, turned up the heat all last week, until Edwards broke his silence and issued a statement – condemning what the bloggers had written, yet insisting that they stay on the job. But the critics persisted anyway, until finally Marcotte and McEwen decided to quit, rather than risk hurting the Edwards campaign.

Supposedly, the real issue here was that Edwards was condoning anti-Catholic bigotry, because, among other things, McEwan had once written that President Bush was in cahoots with his “wingnut Christofascist base,” and Marcotte had joked in explicit language about what would happen if the Virgin Mary had taken an emergency contraceptive. For these reasons, Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, assailed the Edwards campaign for hiring “two anti-Catholic vulgar trash-talking bigots.”

Indeed, this incident was perfect for Donahue, a prominent conservative activist; he knows that the Democrats are trying to connect more effectively with people of faith, and he knows that Catholics are a key swing voter group in presidential elections. So the Edwards story was potentially a countervailing two-fer. (And Donahue’s take on the incident is echoed today by Dan Gerstein, the ex-press secretary for every conservative’s favorite nominal Democrat, Joe Lieberman. In an online column, Gerstein writes: “Catholics are one of the biggest and most important swing-voting blocs in this country. They often tend to decide elections. So it’s probably not the smartest idea for a leading Democratic presidential candidate to hire people who openly defame Catholicism’s sacred figures by talking about the Lord filling the Virgin Mary with 'his hot, white, sticky spirit'.”)

But the right-wing read on this story is flawed for several reasons. Donahue is hardly a disinterested observer; it turns out that he has his own track record of trash talk. I’m particularly fond of his December ’04 remark on MSNBC, about how “Hollywood likes anal sex” and how “Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews.” Not to mention his remark, earlier that year on the same network, about “the gay death style.” It’s also noteworthy that, after Mel Gibson uttered his drunken anti-Semitic slurs, Donahue came forward to say that it was no big deal: “There’s a lot of people who have made comments which are bigoted who are not necessarily bigots…What kind of blood do they want out of this man?”

More importantly – and this gets to the point I want to make – it’s not exactly breaking news that bloggers and candidates make strange bedfellows. The Edwards campaign may indeed have been foolish to believe that they could have it both ways (hiring bloggers in order to tout Edwards’ cutting-edge sensibility, yet somehow believing that the bloggers’ archives would not become a problem). But such delusions are bipartisan, as evidenced a certain employe of the John McCain presidential campaign.

Conservative blogger Patrick Hynes joined McCain last spring. The first embarrassment occurred when, still writing on his personal blog, he attacked a number of McCain’s rivals without disclosing that he was on McCain’s payroll. The second embarrassment occurred when it was discovered that, prior to joining up with McCain, he publicly declared that America was “a Christian nation.” The third embarrassment occurred last November, when, as a McCain employe, he posted on his personal blog a picture of Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman and invited readers to post nicknames. His readers responded with a sampling of anti-Semitic remarks.

So, if Edwards was condoning anti-Catholic bigotry by sticking with his two bloggers, does this mean that McCain is condoning anti-Semitism by continuing to employ his blogger? Or perhaps it’s wiser to just take the broader view of these incidents, and note the real problem:

Putting bloggers into a political campaign is a task akin to putting the head of a dog on the body of a camel. Or vice versa. The two elements simply don’t mesh very well. Contemporary presidential candidates tend to measure each word carefully, for fear of offending somebody; bloggers inhabit a freewheeling universe were crudeness is often prized and where the intelligence-challenged can spew with impunity. It’s hard to imagine that the gap between candidate and blogger discourse will narrow any time soon – give it 40 years, perhaps when today’s bloggers become senior citizens – so future candidates will risk these kinds of embarrassments if they persist in hiring people with inconvenient archives.

Hynes, the McCain blogger, signaled this fundamental difference in an interview last week: “I would caution against holding candidates responsible for what their bloggers and blog consultants have said in the past.”

Perhaps he should email that remark to the folks who went after Edwards.