Saturday, July 15, 2006

Identity crises

The attack dogs of the conservative right are enjoying the fruits of what seems to be a Pundits' Full Employment Act. From across the limited spectrum on the right side of the ideological dial, conservatives and their apologists have been working hard to illuminate the Democratic Party's current disunity and lack of philosophical cohesion (not that anyone needed the conservatives to tell them that).

We've heard them say it, adopting it as some almost desperate mantra: the Democrats don't have a message, they're fragmented, they're a party without a center or a soul. All or some of which is true enough. The problem is, there's no monopoly on being a party in trouble. And the Republican Party is very much in trouble.

If the Democrats have issues in terms of defining themselves for an increasingly restive electorate, let the word go forth that the Republicans are subject to the same identity crisis -- that little matter of "speaking with one voice" -- and the more pernicious problem of a need to redefine itself as separate from the domestic and foreign-policy disasters over which the GOP presides.

As the party in power for the last six years, the greater burden is on them, not the Democrats, to clearly and fully define what they are. In our purple nation of 2006, with two foreign wars underway, a rising crime rate, a steadily ballooning deficit and the relentless polarization that has stained this country since 9/11, at home and abroad, the time's come to say it plain: the Republican Party has profoundly more to lose this November than the Democrats do.

For the Republican Party -- eager to shake off old notions of who and what Republicans are, a party facing discord within its own ranks as the poll numbers dive (see "Apocalypse Tuesday II") -- the midterm elections in less than four months time had better be the start of nothing less than a transformation of some of its most enduring philosophical infrastructure.

The party's my-way-or-the-highway mindset against abortion on demand, for example, runs up against Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose reportedly mild pro-abortion position complicates the pat, doctrinaire tendencies of the conservative right. Just when they think everyone's On Message, they get a curveball from one of their own, a woman whose name gets more and more traction as a possible presidential candidate in 2008.

The GOP's equally reflexive stand against gay marriage goes up against the stand taken by former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose name continues to surface as a possible contender for the presidency in 2008 (and presumably with the blessing of at least some of the conservative bedrock).

The Republican Party faces a need to reach out to Hispanic Americans at the same time it tries to presumptively criminalize many of their number, as the immigration issue keeps swirling. Likewise, the Republicans, ever attentive to the idea of making the GOP a "big-tent" organization, hope to follow up the meager increase in votes from African Americans in 2004 -- despite the party's less than stellar track record on matters of domestic rights.

But really, at the end of the day, despite the importance of abortion, gay marriage and immigration, it's the war that remains the dominant issue, the eight-hundred-pound gorilla consuming all the oxygen in the American room.

The stage is set for a Republican defeat in Congress this year, and the Republicans will have no one to blame for it but themselves. Whether they can rebound from that probable defeat and make changes in handling the Big Issues that dominate the hearts and minds of Americans will speak volumes about their ability to fend off another beating -- the one they may take in 2008.

Sunday, July 2, 2006

Smiling John amid the geeks

He's back, sorta maybe: Smiling John Edwards, the emotional, effusive yin to John Kerry's cerebral yang in the 2004 presidential campaign, is testing the waters for ... something with a series of public appearances and stump speeches around the country. "Something" is the operative word, but it suggests more mystery than probably deserved: Edwards, who got generally high marks for his role in the 2004 run, has seen his name floated more than a few times as a possible contender for the presidency in 2008.

The faithful technologists who gathered on June 30 in Seattle to see Edwards speak had these facts in the back of their minds. The Gnomedex Technology Conference -- a gathering of bloggers, developers and others to discuss the evolution of Internet technologies -- was maybe the ideal non-campaign campaign stop for a possible candidate like Edwards, poised (maybe) to inherit the mantle of Web prescience bestowed (prematurely, it turned out) on Howard Dean in 2004.

To judge from the give-and-take between Edwards and the audience, as reported by Todd Bishop in Saturday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Edwasrds came across as a man earnestly trying to play down his past as conventional politician, a man who admitted to being a neophyte of the Internet, someone there as much to seek their validation as to extend them his own by way of conceding, through his very presence at the conference, how much he'll need them if he takes a run at the big chair in eighteen months or so.

One of the ways Edwards looked for what Bishop called "common ground with bloggers" was fairly refreshing: it was Edwards' admission of a desire to break out of the on-message box of political cannedspeak, to find the best kind of common ground: the candor and plain speaking that are the bedrock foundation of the blogosphere -- its very reason for being.

"I'm trying to retrain and recondition myself when I get asked a question to actually answer it," Edwards said. " ... The problem is that we're so trained and so conditioned over a long period of time that being normal and real and authentic requires you to shed that conditioning. It is not an easy thing to do."

John Edwards wouldn't be the first politician to work at creating an emotional connection with his audience -- hell, Bill Clinton did it twice, successfully, and George Bush basically aw-shucksed his way into the White House in 2000. Edwards, however, may be the first to honestly admit to the particulars of the process of pursuing that connection.

Some in attendance at Gnomedex weren't impressed, but for the wrong reasons. Bishop quotes conference attendee Dave Winer, in one of the more cynical takes on Edwards' appearance. "Edwards is the skillful politician -- incredibly adept, very well-vetted. Didn't say a single thing, merely reflected back to us what he thought we wanted to hear. ... Not a whole lot actually happened here."

Which begs the question of what Winer was expecting when he discovered that Edwards would be at the conference. Sooner or later, Dave, politicians talk politics. It's what they do. You want nonstop techie talk, go chat up Tim Berners-Lee.

But hold up a minute; maybe Winer's right. The P-I's Bishop observed that Edwards was practically a ghost after his keynote speech. "Edwards arrived shortly before speaking and left immediately afterward," the P-I reported, noticing what other people had noticed as well.

Natala Menezes of Seattle noticed. "I think if you're going to attend a conference like this as a newcomer, you can't just speak and leave," she said, revealing a fundamental disconnect between Edwards' message and his actions: By indulging the tendencies toward shark motion that are basic to every presidential campaign -- declared or otherwise -- John Edwards undercut the very basis of his appeal to the blognoscenti. His call for connection and authenticity was neutralized by the force of his own political instincts: Don't stop, keep moving, where's the next speech, where's the next microphone?

Gnomedex was almost certainly populated by a fairly liberal crowd; maybe Edwards figured he was preaching to the choir. But for the conference geeks, it's still to be seen whether Edwards will really make that connection, short of showing up on the campaign trail wearing tattoos and a soul patch.

And how will Edwards connect with the rest of us? That's not just a question for him but for the Democratic Party, a body of possible contenders who need to face a fact: Right now, months before the midterms, two years before the big race, they're not really looking for Bill Clinton. They're looking for Leonard Zelig.
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