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The Tripping Point

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You tend to put your own belief system in the vessel of the guy that you’re supporting. Clearly that happened with Howard Dean as well.Trippi.

San Diego, CA: Feb. 9-10 When Joe Trippi took the stage here at O’Reilly’s Digital Democracy Teach-In, it was an address to Net loyalists by a fallen hero. Trippi had lost three battles in full public view: Iowa, then New Hampshire, and then his position at the top of what he yet called an “insurgent” campaign. If you knew the history, knew the crowd, and had followed Trippi’s press, it was an appearance not without drama.

Of course, loyalist did not apply to everyone in the room in their attitude toward Trippi or Dean or even Net politics. I found skepticism about all three at the conference. But the bonds were real enough to make his talk a more intimate act than “figure in the news speaks out.” As Scott Rosenberg of Salon said to me the following day, Trippi was talking to his troops. For a core group at the Teach-In this was true. And Joe Trippi received a hero’s welcome: two standing ovations, with 50-60 percent joining in.

The d-democracy event was a shrewd and late addition to a larger happening: the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference at the Westin in downtown San Diego. It’s known as E-tech. Some 800 were expected for E-tech, and perhaps a quarter of these came to Monday’s events. In that group were about 45 journalists, including correspondents for Wired, Reuters, AP, Salon, the Nation, CBS News, plus all the webloggers doing the blow by blow, or commenting on parts of the day. (See Jeff Jarvis, Ross Mayfield and this page for lots more. Ross’s post lists many others who blogged.)

“I am out of the campaign, I am not out of the fight.” So said the general to the troops. (Read the transcript here.) And a few days later, the chatter at E-tech was confirmed. Trippi started his weblog, Change for America, with its lead post: Still in the Fight.

There are cynical ways to read these developments, but I think Trippi’s blog is a good idea– if it’s different, and really him, linking and thinking, arguing with people while freely interpreting the news. I want to see how someone with his knowledge of politics does a newsy blog, with a comments section– a far more promising proposition, intellectually, than Trippi mixing it up with Chris Matthews in a pundit’s role for MSNBC. The line at the microphone was daunting, so I never got to ask my questions of Trippi:

Since you are not out of the fight, what part of the fight can be won by putting Joe Trippi into the game as commentator for MSNBC? And, a follow on question, have you considered how this could wind up a fatal compromise with your great adversary, broadcast politics? Or perhaps you have a belly of the beast strategy to share?

In San Diego, Trippi was with people who understood–but did they really understand?–what the Net could do for American politics; what was different, in some cases radically different, about the Dean campaign as it grew; and what bubble of hope had been lost when the Dean candidacy crashed in Iowa and then New Hampshire.

O’Reilly Nation also knew, or thought it knew, that much more would be possible in the future, as the tools that had come into politics kept growing and the social momentum crept up. Here, Trippi was more like an Apple executive speaking to talented developers, who have to be convinced to keep developing a cause–a platform–that everyone knows may be lost. Other heads of big enterprises spoke: Wes Boyd of MoveOn.org, Scott Heiferman of MeetUp.com, David Sifry of Technorati, and Tim O’Reilly himself. Jeff Jarvis lifted the killer quote from O’s welcome: “User contributions are critical to market dominance.” If this becomes true in politics, what does politics become?

The interesting thing to me, a rookie at tech conferences, was that in the sphere I was visiting (without a laptop, which was very dumb) innovation by Net and other means was a normal condition. That’s what the people at the conference are “about.” Things were expected to change as new and powerful tools came within reach, or someone sprung them on the unsuspecting.

The premise of platform replacement is casually accepted in this crowd because it happens all the time. In politics, in journalism, in campaigns, a system overhaul is anything but normal. To me this is one of the great contributions techies have made to politics, which can always use people who see that things could be very, very different. (Micah Sifry, a writer for The Nation, has a yes, but view: “People here talk like all that’s needed is better tools, and then people will pick them up and take back their country from the powers-that-be. There’s almost no sense of how hard organizing actually is, or why.”)

Net literacy was, of course, sky high among this group, political savvy less so. And so Trippi came to teach, as well as explain what happened in the crash, and defend himself from critics, including that morning’s Los Angeles Times. It carried a “hey, possible controversy” story about Trippi’s firm billing the Dean campaign. (See the Washington Post’s deeper analysis and Ed Cone’s commentary. Trippi’s defense is here.)

First, he wanted to show how much the “Net roots,” as he called them, had accomplished in a year: January to January. “That’s why I am here today,” he said, “because I think you started something amazing… a dot com miracle.” (His soundbite phrase for Monday.) “It must survive Howard Dean and his candidacy.”

The miracle is that an alternative to campaigns-as-usual had finally become visible with the Internet’s semi-maturation as political tool. “Broadcast politics has failed us miserably; failed the country miserably,” Trippi said. “The American people now have the beginnings of a platform to change it.” This alternative had proven itself in the one way that counts on everyone’s scorecard: raising money.

That Dean had raised it in small amounts, in distributed fashion, aided by a social movement which began to gather online and kept gathering, along with the blogs and the spirit of active participation– all of that motion meant something. For it had proved something. Before 2003, the record take for a Democrat in a single quarter was by a sitting President, Bill Clinton, who drew $10.5 million, Trippi said. Dean, an asterisk to many people at the time, raised $14.8 million in the third quarter of 2003, then $15.9 in the fourth.

Any system that can do that is a potentially powerful force. A candidate who can bank those sums is not only a threat to win, but a threat to disrupt the rules by which campaigns are run, paid for, and won. Just how surprising Dean’s performance was to the political establishment can be heard in this column from Dick Meyer, editorial director of CBS News online: (July 17, 2003)

Dean – maverick, outsider, underdog – cleaned his opponents’ establishment clocks in the second quarter. He raised $7.6 million, almost $2 million more than the second-place finisher, John Kerry.

Dean raised more cash from small donations than any legitimate, major party presidential candidate has since the 1970’s. Certainly, he’s the only candidate in ages that used small donations to actually win a money race. In 2000, 74 percent of Bush’s donations were $750 or more and 65 percent of Gore’s. Stark contrast to Dean’s 29 percent.

A whopping 73,226 people contributed to Dean’s campaign in the second quarter, 50,000 more than contributed to Kerry’s.

This is something very rare: a good news story about money and politics. I’ve never seen one of these before.

Who would have imagined that it would be money that pushed Dean over the edge into the realm of “credible candidate”? Go figure.

Trippi’s lesson here is not the banal one, “money talks,” but a slightly more subtle point. Money is the one thing that talks to everyone, including those who may be dismissive or out to lunch about online politics or the Dean’s campaign’s innovations, such as they stood. Money signaled the system that something was up.

The establishment had been shocked to see a power source that large–Dean raised $45 million–develop from a previously unknown direction. “The political press could never figure out what the Dean campaign was,” he said. “Now they feel qualified to comment on whether what it did worked.” True. But the press feels qualified to comment on any flat-on-your-face failure, which Dean has become in journalists’ eyes.

In the summer of 2003, Trippi as manager had enough money to go national, get his guy known, and respond to anticipated attacks. Dean was not tied to party fat cats or the office-holding establishment, in Trippi’s mind. Dean had the Net for reaching his people, and his people would later grow to 600,000. He was rapidly stealing the opposition label from the opposition party.

It was from that moment in political time that Trippi told his story of the climactic events in Dean’s demise. The story was about broadcast politics winning out in the end.

Broadcast politics has many other names. It’s politics in endless refinement of the one-to-many model. It’s big donor politics. It’s when you purchase all the air time so your rivals can’t respond, or drive up the negatives before a candidate is known. It relies on message delivery to targeted groups. It’s the astroturf effect–top down media blitzes disguised as “grassroots” eruptions–and other manipulations like it. Broadcast politics takes for granted that 50 percent of the country will not participate in the vote for president, and this is one of the most political things it does.

It’s also the Willie Horton tradition in advertising. It’s the mind that put Michael Dukakis in a tank to show who’s strong on defense. It’s the $2,000 a plate fundraisers to get the money to run the ads mocking a Michael Dukakis in a tank. It’s the Russert primary, the zinger from Ted Koppel, the feeding frenzy when that happens, and the expectations game, which always happens.

Long ago this got called the media campaign, where the basic means for connecting with voters are thirty-second ads, the news on television, the debates, a candidate’s life story (in its mythic version), and a “message”–controlled at the top, refined by polling data–that is to be endlessly gotten out. There are big historical reasons why this system is in charge, which Trippi did not bother with, except to give broadcast politics a symbolic birthdate– 1960, and the Kennedy-Nixon debates.

Today this politics, in Trippi’s telling, is interdependent with the finance system that supports it in both parties, the lobbying culture that overtakes Washington once the elections are run, the political establishment in the two parties, the commercial media’s tollgate system through which the ads and images are run, and the national press, which both reports on the political game and becomes a player in it.

“We were hot in January” of 2003, Trippi said, meaning: Dean was picking up support far in excess of his national profile. But the press did not notice this until the fundraising figures came in from later quarters. Even then journalists didn’t understand how Dean had done it. It was not until Al Gore’s endorsement on December 9th that the system was shocked into recognition– “this guy’s going to be the nominee.”

From here the pace quickened.

The press turned up the scrutiny and put Dean in its sights. Meanwhile, rival candidates began to contemplate their attacks, and started swiping some of Dean’s message, using it as their market research. The Washington establishment grew alarmed– and with reason. On December 14, former Clinton administration official Everett Erlich wrote this in the Washington Post:

Other candidates — John Kerry, John Edwards, Wesley Clark — are competing to take control of the party’s fundraising, organizational and media operations. But Dean is not interested in taking control of those depreciating assets. He is creating his own party, his own lists, his own money, his own organization. What he wants are the Democratic brand name and legacy, the party’s last remaining assets of value.

This is what the Net had wrought, and it seemed to be working. The press realized that a “front loaded” primary schedule, designed by party insiders to produce an early winner, might make Dean unbeatable after Iowa and New Hampshire. Journalists are often accused by journalists of sharing one bias: love of a good story. (A forgivable sin.) An easy triumph by Dean and a list of meaningless primaries to play out is not where the love is for political reporters.

Howard Kurtz wrote ahead of the development that reporters want a two-man race for Christmas. If at that time, you are threatening to run away with it, the press looks (and “votes” via headlines) for a lead challenger to emerge; if there are several challenging, the press looks for a frontrunner. These are the semi-predictable parts of a zeroing-in mechanism, in which every movement is magnified. One can complain about the heightened scrutiny and magnifying effect, but this is sometimes like saying: hey, turn that lens back, I want to be out of focus, take me out of frame.

You run for president to make it into that spotlight, which either consumes its subjects, or clarifies them on the public screen, fixing an image of the candidate for the electorate just tuning in. If Dean and Trippi were not ready for that, they were not ready for Prime Time.

With the arrival of the new year, the countdown to the caucuses began. Richard Gephardt, in Trippi’s incendiary phrase, began his “murder-suicide” by stepping up the attacks on Dean. Criticism, missteps and gaffes began to characterize news coverage. “We ran straight into broadcast politics,” he said. This, according to Micah Sifry, is “the webocrats catchphrase for top-down, capital-intensive politics, where the main goal is having or raising enough money to buy broadcast power to send a message to the passive masses.”

But Dean’s Net supporters did not realize what was happening, Trippi said. They got complacent when their man seemed to be well ahead. “There was no way to communicate to people how high the stakes were right at that moment,” Trippi said. The Dean campaign had “this huge target on our back,” and it now had to win at broadcast politics, while avoiding minefields that come with being The Story every day. There was the air war fought with ads, the Frontrunner Stumbles plot turn from the press, the attacks by rivals (and by Dean himself, which could turn off voters.) An old quote of Dean’s appeared, in which he mocked the Iowa caucuses.

“We were having a hard time saying, ‘we could be in real trouble here,'” Trippi recalled. And this is where he made his most interesting observation. I had more than a dozen conversations with journalists about it, as we all tried to figure out what it meant. One thing was unanimous: Reuters (“How Web Support Failed Dean in Crunch”) got it wrong. Here’s the key passage:

We couldn’t figure out how to communicate to people that there was this–pardon the expression–a “holy shit” moment happening here. In other words, our Internet supporters were complacent. They were, “Man, we’ve got more money than anybody. We’re ahead in Iowa and we’re ahead in New Hampshire…”

I remember sending out an E-mail that said…something like, “If you’ve never heard the depth of our need for your support right now, hear it now,” and the blog comments were, “Why is Joe sounding so desperate? He’s never sounded desperate before. We’re on top of the world here. We’re ahead.” And so I think there was a disconnect between our Net roots’ understanding of the body politic and what was happening at that moment after Gore endorsed us.

The Powers that Be had struck in a pattern predictable from before; the Governor was undergoing the trials of the frontrunner. All effort had to swing from creating a movement and building the tools for expanding it further… to grinding infantry work in Iowa: finding voters who would turn out for Dean and persuading them it’s worth a shot.

At the same time, Trippi as shot caller for Dean had entered a dangerous area where only the rules of Realpolitik can win you the prize. These were not the terms that existed between the Dean campaign led by Trippi and the movement for Dean that helped bring 600,000 forward in one way or another.

and there was really no way….we couldn’t figure out a way to communicate what was happening to us in a way that either didn’t sound desperate — I do not know what the word is for it– but did not ring alarm bells the wrong way…

“Figure out a way to communicate” involves the press. The conditions of scrutiny Dean had entered disallowed honest communication with the base in the very public terms the Dean campaign had half-pioneered. If you leveled with supporters and sent out the call, “we’re in trouble if we don’t make a big turn away from what we’re doing,” then the press–on frontrunner alert–would seize on that.

The master narrative has a well worn device for this: the “campaign in disarray” story. Mistakes are fodder, not only for reporters but also the comedy teams on television– a serious consideration when you are still introducing the candidate as a person. The situation demands from Burlington an absurd level of public confidence, but it was precisely too much confidence that was hurting the campaign.

Transparency–a buzzword but not only a buzzword–is a first casualty of Realpolitik. “We weren’t trying to keep the Net roots out of the loop,” Trippi explained. “We were trying to keep John Kerry out of it.” You cannot afford transparency or deliberation as the race intensifies. Could this be announced? Impossible. And so your distributed supporters, organized in affinity style or by weblog, had to sense it happening, or read between the lines of what the campaign was saying. What alternative was there? E-mail 300,000 of your best people and ask them to keep it quiet? “The press reads the blog.”

That was the tipping point, in the story Trippi told to E tech. Net politics had done a lot, and confounded the establishment. But it was still immature, only half developed. A lot of people feel that way about Trippi himself: Adina Levin is one: “He didn’t take responsibility for the disorganization in his own campaign and the lack of precinct organizing savvy that made the Dean get-out-the-vote effort less effective than Kerry. He didn’t take responsibility for communication failures and flaws.”

He didn’t. But maybe as a writer he now will.


Jay Rosen is chair of the Journalism Department at New York University. His weblog is PressThink.

Transcript of Joe Trippi’s Feb. 9th speech, Down from the Mountain.

“Okay, so I rambled a little.” (Trippi at his weblog) And don’t forget his Q and A with journalist and weblogger Ed Cone.

Wired magazine’s Noah Shactman: Trippi: Net Politics Here to Stay

Scott Rosenberg of Salon: “More than anything else Trippi said here, his confession of this ‘transparency problem’–his admission that, at its hour of greatest need, the Dean campaign was unable to level with its own online loyalists–seemed to break faith with the campaign’s revolutionary aspirations. What good is building a vast open network to route around the existing power structure if you can’t use it?…If in the weeks before Iowa, Dean’s campaign had told its followers that things weren’t going so well, maybe the media would have pounced on his vulnerability; but maybe his troops would have rallied.”

Alex Beame, columnist for the Boston Globe, It’s game over for Dean’s Web dreams.

And as for the Deaniacs — where can they go? The received wisdom is that the power of the Internet mobilized Dean supporters from men and women who had been alienated from politics as usual. But if they really want George Bush out of the White House, they will have to wake up before 8 p.m. on Nov. 2, skip the trip to Starbucks, and pull the old-fashioned lever down at the polling place.

The next election may be held online, but this one won’t be

Dan Gillmor, Trippi’s bet on Net will pay off far into the future (San Jose Mercury News.)

Steve Gillmor in E-week: “Technologists from all four major campaigns used the O’Reilly conference as a gathering point for discussing shared usage of campaign software in the general election.”

Audio file: Dan Gillmor, Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen in, “Gatekeepers No More,” panel discussion at the Digital Democracy Teach In.

Kind thanks to Matt Welch for the title of this one.

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