The GOP, Atwitter About the Digital Possibilities
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Eight years of the Bush presidency created and strengthened the netroots, the liberal blogosphere. The conservative blogosphere, the so-called rightroots, appears poised to benefit the same way from the Obama administration.
But for that energy to galvanize a fully formed political movement -- in the way bloggers, MeetUp and MoveOn helped reinvigorate the Democratic Party -- the GOP must remake itself online and harness grass-roots support.
Such was the overarching theme of Friday's Technology Summit, hosted by the Republican National Committee.
Less than a month into his tenure as RNC chief, a relaxed, speaking-off-the-cuff Michael S. Steele -- the first African American to hold that position -- welcomed a mostly white crowd of about 300 technocrats to the Capitol Hill Club early Friday morning. It was an open house of sorts, a come-in-and-tell-us-what-we-should-be-doing kind of gathering, complete with a lectern and a line of speakers delivering prepared remarks.
David All, who founded the group blog TechRepublican.com ("Internet and technology strategies for conservatives," the site reads), jolted the room when he declared: "What an exciting time to be a Republican." Many nodded at the remark. Others winced.
"Some say the Internet is just a series of tubes," said All, in a blatant dig at former senator Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who in June 2006 famously described the Internet just that way. "The Internet is me. It's you. It is all of us. It is a living, breathing place where real people spend a majority of their time everyday doing real things, making a difference."
The gathering was organized by Saul Anuzis, the head of the Michigan GOP who ran against Steele for the post of RNC chair, and Cyrus Krohn, the former Microsoft and Yahoo exec who oversees the RNC's online strategy.
The event was announced just a few days before it was held. Even so, so many people registered that the day-long convention was moved from the lobby of the RNC to the club's Eisenhower Lounge. Attended by some of the who's-who of the rightroots -- Patrick Ruffini, the founder of TheNextRight.com was there, as was Mindy Finn, who led Mitt Romney's online strategy -- the powwow was streamed live on GOPTechSummit.com.
By 12:30 p.m., close to 400 viewers were tuning in online. Newt Gingrich stopped by uninvited; he said he read about the get-together in blogs. Upon arrival at the Capitol Hill Club, fliers were handed out directing guests to do the following: "Share ideas at GOPTechSummit.Ning.com"; "Join us on Twitter @ Twitter.com/RNC"; "Watch us @ YouTube.com/RNC"; "Text 'JOIN' to 46708 for Mobile Updates"; "Meet 58,000+ fellow Republicans on our Facebook page"; and "Email eCampaign@gop.com for more."
In other words, no new media tool was left unturned. Clearly, Steele, Anuzis and Krohn et al. had taken notes as Obama leveraged new technologies to victory last November.
"Campaign Obama recognized that there was a new generation of opportunity out there and they weren't going to sleep at the switch, and they were going to find creative and innovative ways to reach every person they could touch. And I want to do that. But not only do I want to touch them, I want to invite them to dinner, and I want to have something on that plate for them that they're not going to get indigestion from but want to gobble up and have more of," Steele told the crowd in a seven-minute speech, which was posted on YouTube.
"When we get to 2010, I want my campaigns here," Steele continued as he held up his BlackBerry. "I want whatever we're doing to be within my thumb's reach. I want to not only use the phone to call home, but I want to use it to download, upload, share, text, do whatever it needs to touch voters, to identify those voters and have something to say to those voters."
That's a tall order, considering that this year's GOP presidential campaign didn't have a text-messaging program and presidential nominee Sen. John McCain confessed to being computer-"illiterate." Even before McCain lost and the Republicans gave up more seats in the Senate and the House, online strategists such as All, Ruffini and Finn had been ringing the alarm in blog postings and list-servs. That is partly because they're making money off it -- it's Christmastime for GOP online strategists -- but also because they see their party's future in bottom-up, grass-roots activism of the type that former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean encouraged.
Two days after Obama and the Democrats won in November, Ruffini and Finn's site, RebuildtheParty.com, went live. "2008 made one thing clear: If allowed to go unchecked, the Democrats' structural advantages, including their use of the Internet, their more than 2-to-1 advantage with young voters, their discovery of a better grassroots model -- will be as big a threat to the future of the GOP as the toxic political environment we have faced the last few years," the site proclaims.
Just before the RNC voted on its chairman, the site uploaded a six-minute video called "We Are Republicans." Think will.i.am's "Yes, We Can" video minus the singing celebrities but with photos of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Arbaham Lincoln and testimonials from a diverse group of Republicans who say they believe in the core GOP values of "lower taxes," "less government" and "transparency." Incidentally or not, that last term is one the Obama administration mentions tirelessly. In the past two weeks, the video has been viewed more than 16,000 times -- not exactly a viral hit, but not bad, either.
But in the end, blogging, Facebook and YouTube are just tools, as technocrats like to preach. A few attendees at Friday's event said the RNC should focus not just "on rebooting its operating system," as Ravi Singh explained it, but also on getting a new message. Singh stood out in the room. While addressing the crowd, the American-born and -raised Sikh jokingly referred to himself "as this crazy turban guy with a turban and a beard." Years ago, he ran as a Republican for the Illinois General Assembly and lost. Singh said he's an independent now and runs ElectionMall.com, an Amazon.com-like one-stop shop for candidates looking to use the Web in their campaigns. His clients include Democrats and Republicans, and overall, he said, the GOP has a long way to go to catch up to Democrats.
"For years, officials in both parties looked at technology as a magic bullet -- master this new program, this new application, and you'll win," Singh said. "But technology is an enabler. You need a message and a messenger to use it most effectively. The Republicans must figure that out."
And the GOP will be rebuilding itself at a time when the Democratic Party continues to make inroads in using technology to reach a diverse set of constituents with their message. Today, the New Politics Institute, an arm of the liberal think-tank New Democrat Network, will hold one of its many lunches for Democratic Hill staffers and advocacy folks. The title of the event: "New Tools for a New Era." Simon Rosenberg, founder of NDN, said the lunch is a part of his group's ongoing New Tools series, which tout the use of cell phones, social networks and micro-targeting, among others, in campaigning. NPI was created in 2005.
"Look, the Republican Party is at least two presidential cycles behind. They didn't get what Howard Dean was doing. They dismissed what Barack Obama was doing," Rosenberg said. "But one of the things they have going for them is, they can learn from years of trial and error and investment by us Democrats. Eventually, they're going to catch up. But they can't just combine new tools with old politics."
Surely, Steele and company are paying attention.
This is one in a series of online columns on our growing "clickocracy," in which we are one nation under Google, with e-mail and video for all. Please send suggestions, comments and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted at 6:00 AM ET on Feb 17, 2009
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