I am an atheist, but when Bill Donohue called the John Edwards bloggers "anti-Catholic, vulgar, trash-talking bigots," my first thought was, "There but for the grace of God go I."
I was offered a job blogging for John Edwards, but I declined.
On Jan. 12, an Edwards campaign staffer whom I'll call Bob, which isn't his real name, e-mailed me to ask if I might be interested in blogging for the campaign. I maintain a blog called Majikthise, and I'd met Bob several times at various political and social gatherings in New York City, including Drinking Liberally.
Back in October, Bob had invited me to join a few local bloggers at an off-the-record meeting with Elizabeth Edwards at the Loews Regency Hotel. Unfortunately, I couldn't go.
Mrs. Edwards is a celebrity in the netroots because she maintains an active presence in the community. Months later, bloggers who attended that meeting are still talking about it in glowing terms. Mrs. Edwards has been writing her own diaries on DailyKos for years.
As a fellow blogger put it, "Elizabeth Edwards is everywhere."
Bob and I arranged to have an exploratory conversation on Sunday, Jan. 14, after the Martin Luther King Day commemoration service at Riverside Church in Harlem, where John Edwards was scheduled to speak. It was a mutually convenient time because Bob was there with the campaign and I was blogging (and photographing) the event.
After the three-hour ceremony, Bob worked his way through the throng of parishioners and choir members to greet me as I packed up my camera gear. He's a slight, soft-spoken guy in his 20s with short, dark hair and bright green eyes.
"You guys put on a great show!" I said. It was true. Everyone from Chuck Schumer to Bill Moyers had showed up to watch John Edwards denounce Bush's Iraq escalation in Hillary Clinton's backyard.
It was already dark and drizzling when Bob and I left the church. Bob was telling me how John Edwards was going to be a different kind of candidate. We, a new generation of Internet-savvy activists, had finally come of age. We were going to help Edwards run a campaign that was totally outside the Beltway.
I nodded. The glow of the ceremony was still with me. Anything seemed possible.
As we walked, Bob downloaded his vision: The whole Edwards campaign was going to be a decentralized grass-roots operation.
"Elizabeth Edwards gets it," he said with unabashed admiration.
We settled into the back of a small, brightly lit shawarma joint and ordered baklava. After this heartfelt pitch, Bob asked me if I was interested in blogging for the Edwards campaign.
I was dazzled by Edwards' speech, Bob's vision and the sense that I might be on the verge of the big time. I wanted to jump on the bus, but I knew I couldn't.
"I'm probably not ... the person you want," I said, finally. "I mean, I'm on the record saying that abortion is good and that all drugs should be legalized, including heroin. Don't you think that might be a little embarrassing for the campaign?"
Bob assured me that my controversial posts weren't a problem as far as the campaign was concerned. They were familiar with my work. And Bob did seem to know my writing. I didn't get the impression he was a daily reader, but it was obvious he had been reading the blog for a while.
"That's you, that's not John Edwards," he said.
Bob was confident that people would understand the difference. I wasn't so sure.
"So, it's not a problem that I'm an outspoken atheist?" I asked.
Every blogger says controversial things from time to time, Bob assured me. He admitted that he'd drawn some fire for a tasteless joke on his own site a while back. It hadn't been a big deal.
I asked if I would have to quit blogging at Majikthise in order to take the job with Edwards. My blog means more to me than any job I've ever had. After three years of hard work, I finally have a platform from which to express ideas that won't get a hearing in the established media, let alone in mainstream Democratic politics. So the prospect of giving up my untrammeled freedom to blog press releases for John Edwards gave me pause. Still, I assumed Bob would say it was a necessity.
I was wrong. Bob promised that I wouldn't have to give up my personal blog. He added that I probably wouldn't have much time left for personal blogging, since everyone was working 18-hour days on the campaign. But, he noted, he hadn't given up his own blog, and neither had another member of the Edwards Internet team.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. A bunch of Internet staffers with private blogs sounded like a disaster waiting to happen.
I knew that if I was blogging for Edwards, anything I said on Majikthise would be a potential liability for the candidate, even if I wasn't talking about politics.
And aside from the risks to the campaign, I wasn't sure this arrangement would be healthy for my blog. With this responsibility weighing on my mind, how could I continue to deliver the independent perspective that my readers value? If I were suddenly on a candidate's payroll, yet still posting my own "independent" thoughts on Majikthise, what would my longtime readers think? Would they still trust me? Should they? Full disclosure wasn't going to solve the problem of divided loyalties.
Bob and I sat for a long time, nibbling baklava and talking strategy. He asked me if I knew of any other feminist bloggers who might be interested in the job.
I don't remember who brought up Amanda Marcotte's name first. I said Marcotte was the best writer in the feminist blogosphere. If they wanted a high-profile feminist blogger, Amanda was the best.
Bob is a regular reader of Amanda's blog, Pandagon. We reminisced for a while about some classic brawls and blowups that had erupted at Pandagon.
"The thing you have to realize about Amanda is that she's got real enemies," I said. "We've all got trolls, but Amanda gets a whole different level of abuse."
I told Bob this story to give him some idea of the kind of seething hatred the campaign might have to deal with: The first time I heard Amanda on the radio, an angry caller phoned up to say, "You're Amanda Marcotte, and you're a clerical worker at the University of Texas at Austin." He had his facts wrong, but his message was clear. He was trying to get Amanda fired while leaving some darker threat hanging in the air. The host had to cut him off. Since that incident, at least one of Amanda's trolls had called her then-employer and tried unsuccessfully to get her fired.
I tried to suggest that the campaign might not want high-profile bloggers. I thought it might be better off hiring a well-connected political operative with good connections in the blogosphere.
Bob listened attentively, scribbling copious notes. I didn't feel I was making much headway. The Edwards team was obviously looking for the blogospheric equivalent of star power, but they weren't looking for another high-powered blogger/political consultant like Tim Tagaris or Matt Stoller. They wanted a charismatic audience-builder who could connect with readers who weren't political junkies.
I tried to explain this as delicately and clearly as I could: A-list polemicists are popular because they say things you don't hear on television. The blogosphere isn't just "The Situation Room" with swear words, it's a space for writers to explore ideas that are outside the bounds of mainstream discourse.
If you hire these larger-than-life personalities to blog for John Edwards, they'll have to stop espousing many of the radical policy positions and unconventional values that made them popular in the first place.
Fans will also know when a John Edwards message conflicts with the bloggers' own record on an issue. Big-name bloggers hired by campaigns will be accused of "selling out" and open themselves up to accusations of hypocrisy from both sides.
What Bob didn't seem to realize is that the right-wing blogosphere was going to try to get Edwards' bloggers fired no matter what. Unlike the liberal netroots, the right-wing blogosphere is capable of exactly one kind of collective political action. They call it "scalping" -- they pick a target and harass that person and his or her employer until the person either jumps or is pushed out of the public eye. Whoever blogged for Edwards was signing up for a lot of bad hair days, and it wasn't going to be me.
I left the meeting feeling optimistic but uneasy. I later applied for a job as a campaign photographer. Taking pictures meant I could work for the candidate without having to type up and post endorsements of political positions I might not agree with. I felt that the Edwards campaign was going to make history one way or another. I would even have put the blog on hiatus for a front-row seat.
When the campaign announced that it had hired Amanda as blogger, I was overjoyed -- but very surprised. It's one thing to have a relatively junior staffer say your blog archives don't matter; it's quite another to see that assessment reflected in a hiring decision.
It was certainly a gutsy move, and I knew Amanda could do a great job. If anyone was inured to right-wing intimidation, it was Amanda. She's been fighting the wingnuts tooth-and-nail for years and she's already shrugged off every epithet in the book.
Upon reading the announcement, my partner Darcy said, "I hope the Edwards campaign knows what it's in for."
"I'm sure they do," I said.
At first it looked as if the Edwards campaign might have pulled off a real coup. The right wing's opening salvos fizzled. It was attacking Amanda for using bad words and supposedly rewriting her own posts, but nobody outside the blogosphere cared. Then, just when it seemed like the campaign was going to ride out the storm, my worst fears were realized. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League and the right-wing blogosphere aligned for an all-out assault on Amanda.
If it had just been the right-wing bloggers gunning for Amanda, the problem would have been short-lived. Unfortunately, as the Edwards campaign learned the hard way, the right wing has a large network of surrogates, like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Bill Donohue, who can propel virtually any story into the mainstream media. These professional blowhards are supported by a lavish infrastructure of publishers, partisan media outlets, think tanks, grants, lecture circuits and more.
Republican benefactors lavish funds on the conservative message machine because they recognize the value of a good surrogate. Candidates don't pay their surrogates or give them orders. Instead, they rely on them to say all the outrageous things they can't say themselves.
So far, the left doesn't have much in the way of institutionally supported partisan counterweights. We've got Bill Moyers, they've got Bill Donohue. Explains a lot, doesn't it?
Progressive blogs have the potential to become the left wing's open-source counterpart to the right-wing noise machine. But that doesn't necessarily mean using money and a title to yoke an established blogger to a specific candidate.
There is a breed of blogger that has proven useful working in an official capacity for political campaigns -- the party activist/consultant/blogger hybrid, someone like Matt Stoller of MyDD. Ideally, but not always, that kind of blogger puts his or her own blog on hold while being paid by a campaign, perhaps returning to it once the race is run. And the content of a party activist's blog is heavy on poll numbers, policy discussions and electoral minutiae. An opposition researcher might unearth something allegedly "intemperate" from the archives and use it against the candidate, but that risk is less than with the other style of blogger, an independent polemicist like Amanda.
I can also see the argument for letting these party activists maintain their own blogs while working for a campaign, provided there's full disclosure. In 2006, the Jim Webb Senate campaign put two bloggers from Raising Kaine, Josh Chernila and Lowell Feld, on its payroll. Feld had launched the blog in 2005 with the express purpose of helping elect Democrat Tim Kaine governor of Virginia (Kaine won). Feld and Chernila then cofounded the draft movement that pulled Jim Webb into the Senate race, and Raising Kaine became one of the chief cheerleaders for Webb before the 2006 Democratic primary. When Webb eventually hired Chernila and Feld -- Chernila as deputy field director and grass-roots coordinator, Feld as netroots and online fundraising coordinator and blogger -- he wasn't paying them to say or do anything they didn't already fully endorse.
In my opinion, though, the real lesson of the Webb campaign is how effective bloggers can be when they're outside the campaign. I think the candidates who benefit the most from the netroots are the ones who can inspire bloggers to do their work for free. They create unpaid, unofficial surrogates. Webb is a netroots success story because his team captured the imagination of independent bloggers and online activists.
It was always clear that the netroots adopted Webb, not the other way around. His people figured out a way to make the relationship work. Throughout the race, besides hiring Feld and Chernila, his staffers also diligently cultivated relationships with bloggers outside the campaign. The Webb team started taking the pulse of the larger blogosphere before the Democratic primary -- and their candidate's primary victory was due, in part, to intense Internet support.
Some candidates effortlessly attract blogger buzz, but love at first sight is rare. Usually it takes a little more work to build relationships. Campaigns "work" bloggers more or less the same way they work the mainstream press. They send out e-mails and press releases. They make phone calls. They make their candidate available for interviews. They invite bloggers to campaign events. They network in person at Drinking Liberally or the YearlyKos convention. Webb's team was especially good at maintaining lines of communication with bloggers, and benefited from the netroots' infatuation with their candidate.
When Webb's videographer captured George Allen's "'macaca' moment," therefore, the campaign had a ready-made, receptive audience. All the campaign had to do was upload the video to YouTube and send out some well-targeted e-mails to bloggers and other supporters and wait.
Supporters forwarded the clip to their friends. Bloggers started posting the video on their sites. The "macaca" clip got more than 600,000 views on YouTube alone and exploded into the mainstream media.
The vast majority of bloggers who pushed the story didn't just seem like they were independent of the campaign, they were. They were unabashedly partisan, but they weren't paid operatives. The Webb campaign didn't want to push the video itself, but hoped that it would capture the imagination of supporters on the outside.
If the Webb campaign had pushed the video directly, the campaign would have been criticized for going negative. Instead, it left a tasty tidbit where bloggers would seize upon it.
In general, because of the candidate's popularity, and because of the relationships it had cultivated, the Webb campaign was able to benefit from much rowdier surrogates than Amanda Marcotte without paying for them. In addition to the "macaca" storm, pro-Webb blogger Mike Stark actually got arrested while covering an Allen campaign rally. The incident made national headlines. The video of Stark being carted away in handcuffs reinforced Allen's image as a bully in the last days of the campaign. It's unclear whether Stark's self-assigned political theater ultimately helped the Webb campaign at the polls, but it didn't hurt.
The Edwards campaign wants decentralized people-powered politics. Ironically, by hiring well-known bloggers to manage a destination Web site, it was actually centralizing and micromanaging. Every campaign needs a blog, but the most important part of a candidate's netroots operation is the disciplined political operatives who can quietly build relationships with bloggers outside the campaign. And the bomb-throwing surrogates need to be outside, where they can make full use of their gifts without saddling a campaign with their personal political baggage.