Politically he is carrying out Ronald Reagan’s unmade run of 1968, delivering a new Political Thesis, new Myths and Values, based on a new medium, to a people desperate for them. Reagan unfortunately waited until Richard Nixon had his nomination sewed-up in 1968 before trying, at the convention, to take it away. Nixon won that convention easily because there was no consistent representative of movement conservatism to oppose him before then.
Howard Dean, as everyone understands by now, carried out the Goldwater role in 2004. His failure came down to an unwillingness to scale the intimacy his campaign had in 2003 — instead hordes of kids in orange hats descended on Iowans who wanted something more personal.
Obama’s team, by contrast, delivered what Dean’s team had only promised, a process revolution I wrote about in Let Obama Be Reagan, while minimizing the kind of nonsense I wrote about in ObamaRomney in December.
The Obama campaign has caused the snapshot people saw as they focused on the early campaign to be the clear idea of a New Thesis, and voters are responding. The key moment, in retrospect, was his reaction to the Iowa victory, paired against Howard Dean’s reaction to his Iowa defeat. Obama spoke to history, Dean to his disillusioned supporters. History is what people want to be part of, what they feel a part of, as a new political thesis emerges.
Dean’s online campaign was an amateur hour compared to Obama’s effort. It’s like comparing a Buster Keaton short from 1921 to an MGM feature of 1939. Obama’s people went to school on what Dean did, and failed to do, online. They went to school on the opportunities Dean missed for connecting the online and off-line worlds. And in retrospect (despite my early criticism) they have succeeded magnificently.
A campaign’s technical effort is far more than a Web site, far more than a blog, far more than text messaging. It’s an integrated whole, combining the ability to draw in massive amounts of data, and to use it in directing people to do the campaign’s work for you. I can’t tell you enough how important early 2007 was to Obama’s Iowa win in 2008. It was everything.
While Dean’s staff used the Internet as an adjunct, and top aides posted to the blog directly, Obama’s team understood the process revolution the Internet makes possible. Thus, they collected small donations as the price of admission to early Obama rallies, and used that to build their database. Thus, they collected a ton of detail on the Iowa caucus process throughout 2007, and disseminated it to volunteers who lived in those districts and could man their own caucuses personally.
Obama’s people understood that "people-driven media" is, in some ways, a sideshow to a campaign. They enabled it, but they didn’t let that be the show. The main show had to be a branding exercise — that’s what campaigns are. So their online effort was directed at amassing tons of people and tons of real, little campaign jobs for those people to do.
In other words they scaled the intimacy. They scaled it even beyond where Markos Moulitsas envisioned its being scaled in Crashing the Gate. This is the process revolution Dean promised, targeted at the Internet Generation which would understand that message and run with it.
The second contribution of the Obama campaign has been knowing its place in history, representing a new political thesis born of the Internet, and the Internet generation. As I wrote nearly a year ago now, this didn’t have to be explicit.
Obama has talked a lot lately of "consensus," and some in the
Netroots see that as a code for knuckling-under to the Right, because
that’s how the dominant Thesis has always used it.
But it doesn’t have to mean that. It can mean, simply, starting with where we agree and working outward.
There’s a third ingredient to the Obama success, which comes from
the candidate himself. I could see it as he got up to give his Iowa
victory statement last week, and maybe you didn’t notice it. But you
know how every successful candidate has their own way of interacting
with crowds? Think of Richard Nixon with his two arms in the air, or
Bill Clinton with his thumb out.
Barack Obama claps. He’ll give a wave, with one arm then the other,
but mainly when he is being applauded he claps along, applauding his
crowd. It’s a unique bit of stagecraft. Then again, everything about
his personal style is stagecraft, artfully constructed. His ability to
present an empowering image, a forward-looking image, a new image, is
what he’s all about. Let the pundits ponder the details, what people
want is new and improved. And when Obama took the stage last week with
his attractive young wife and his attractive young children, that’s
what he delivered.
Can he still blow it? Yes, he can. The institutional Democratic
Party, which has been behind Hillary Clinton, and which destroyed Dean
with John Kerry, remains intact. America is filled with gun nuts, and
any one of them could turn Obama into Martin Luther King Jr. at any
moment. There could be a gaffe — every politician is capable of them
and every newscaster is adept at creating them.
But right now, Barack Obama and the Internet Thesis are sailing
forward, with seemingly unstoppable momentum. The candidate, his staff,
and their Internet people all deserve applause. In response, they may