The Republican YouTube debate pleased few people more than David All. A 28-year-old former Senate Republican aide, All and a handful of other techsavvy conservatives created SavetheDebate.com to urge Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani to drop their objections to the debate’s format and take part. When all the major GOP candidates finally took the stage in November, 4.5 million people tuned in—the largest audience of any debate up to that point.
All, who owns a new media consulting shop, The David All Group, flew down from Washington to Florida to watch the debate in person. Afterward, he posted video on his blog, along with photos of himself in the spin room with other bloggers, Rep. Duncan Hunter and Chuck Norris. His Twitter message read, “Best debate yet—GOP or Dem.” He changed his Facebook profile photo to one of him opening his dress shirt and sticking his chest out, Superman-like, to reveal a YouTube T-shirt.
Just getting the GOP candidates to the YouTube debate was an important victory for the technology wing of the Republican Party. But the fact that it was such a struggle laid bare the skepticism that some Republicans still have about the Internet—a resistance that worries the group of young conservatives looking for the best tools to take on Democrats in the 21st century.
“It’s like the idea of an advance crew visiting new planets,” says All, a fasttalking, laptop-toting Ohio native eager to spread his ideas about the Web. “When it comes to modern media, you’re going to have a small ‘away team’ sent down to scout out the new terrain, to make sure it’s not hostile territory. The first crew takes a risk for a larger landing party, and finally the entire crew, who beam down once they know the planet is safe.”
In All’s analogy, he and other tech-minded Republicans are the small advance crew, the Republican presidential field is the larger landing party, and the rest of the GOP, he hopes, will eventually join them. The risk-taking advance party includes All, plus Patrick Ruffini, President Bush’s 2004 campaign Web director; Robert Bluey, the Heritage Foundation’s Web guru; and Erick Erickson, editor of the conservative community blog RedState.com. They hope to introduce Republicans to new tactics, although they’re not talking about revolutionizing the party.
After all, they’re conservatives, the side built on respect for tradition. Instead, they want to nudge Republicans carefully in the right direction so that they use more of the tools available to them. The tricky thing is that each of them has their own idea of the right direction, and no one’s quite sure what the terrain will look like by the time they get to their destination. It could even be that the online world won’t live up to its billing.
“At the risk of my own job security, the jury is still out on whether or not the Internet is going to be the silver bullet,” says Cyrus Krohn, eCampaign director for the Republican National Committee. “For all of the success stories we’ve heard since the advent of the Internet, show me one significant victory and I’ll eat crow.”
The Way Forward
Of course, conservatives aren’t totally absent in the online world. They have their own blogs—InstaPundit, Michelle Malkin, Little Green Footballs—that are as strident and nearly as widely read as the liberal DailyKos. And they also get their message out through news sites like The Drudge Report and NewsMax. But there’s no Right-wing version of MoveOn. org, the non-profit advocacy group with the clout and coffers to shape the debate (as it did last summer with its controversial “General Betray Us” ad). And there’s no successful conservative ActBlue, the Web site through which Democratic activists have donated more than $32 million to their candidates across the country.
So what’s the plan for pushing conservative political action into the Internet age? One approach is to do what the Left does, but do it better. In press releases, All says his site is more innovative than ActBlue, since it gives candidates and supporters more control over its pages. And like MoveOn, Erickson’s RedState has started sending out “action e-mails,” urging conservative activists to phone their congressional representatives about particular votes. The first, sent out last October, called on members to oppose the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Of course, MoveOn’s e-mail list is 3.5 million strong; RedState’s has only about 2,000 addresses. Still, Erickson says even small innovations like these are happening because the party is hurting now, just as the challenging environment of the early 1990s led to GOP innovations. In fact, Web activism tools that Democrats use now—blast e-mails, blogs, online fundraising— came of age when Republicans were trying to undermine President Bill Clinton. Erickson recalls how protests against the Clinton administration often grew out of posts on the conservative site Free Republic, which was cutting edge back then.
“When the Left needed to get organized, they had, number one, the anger from 2000 and, number two, the tools that the Right did not have when they got organized.” If the Right was out of power six years ago, they would have been the ones to develop the Web tools most effective today, just as they developed talk radio in the 1990s and direct mail in the 1970s, according to Erickson’s logic. Human Events, The Weekly Standard and the American Conservative Union, along with some Republican Senate staffers—to listen to members of Congress tell them about the Republican message du jour and how they, too, believe in the power of the Internet.
The worry for conservatives like All and Erickson is that their candidates will soon lose elections and congressional floor fights because of a reliance on old techniques and because progressives have become more effective at Internet activism.
There’s a common lesson to be learned from both Republicans’ direct mail successes in 1980 and today’s liberal netroots, says Richard Viguerie, the 74-year-old conservative direct mail guru: both movements came from outside their party’s establishment, and thus had a greater willingness to take risks.
“One of the weaknesses on the Republican side is that Republicans are royalists—the king is the king, long live the king,” says Viguerie. To jar Republicans from sticking to leaders who aren’t willing to try new things, Viguerie wants to create a “third force,” a group that works outside the party structure. That way, it won’t be tethered to the Republican Party when its tactics become stale or when it strays from conservative principles, such as fiscal restraint.
Viguerie stepped down from his daily role as president of a Virginia direct mail firm last year so he could focus on a new Internet venture, ConservativeHQ.com. Calling the Internet the fifth great mass communication vehicle—after the printing press, moveable type, radio and television—he says his new site will exploit the opportunities to connect with voters, just as MoveOn has done, in the hope of pushing the debate rightward. “We have an agenda, and the agenda is to relaunch the conservative movement,” he says. Robert Bluey sees a different path. Every week at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank blocks from the Capitol, the 28-year-old Bluey gathers about thirty people—bloggers from
Deposed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was a guest one week, speaking about a topic that surfaces often. To counter the new Democratic majority, DeLay started a non-profit with a shiny new Web site that will organize grassroots groups in eight cities. “We [conservatives] do a very good job of think tanks, of working inside the Beltway, putting on events,” DeLay told bloggers on a conference call, from his office in Texas. “But what I’ve seen in my 25 years in Washington is that there’s not enough communication and there’s not enough action.” While DeLay spoke, Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio Secretary of State and DeLay’s partner in this venture, showed off the Web site, which they hope to use to draw more activists.
Bluey hopes to foster that action through the very think tanks that DeLay praises. Just because Republicans know they have to use the Internet doesn’t mean they’re going to do it the same way liberals have, relying on outsiders to come up with innovations. He says that Heritage’s role is to bring the conservative movement together. Now that conservatives are blogging, that means bringing bloggers together. The better the network, the stronger the movement becomes, he figures.
When asked whether he thinks he and the other young turks are the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy 2.0, Bluey says, “Well, I never thought about it that way, but ... yeah!”
He points to the immigration debate as an example. Last spring, when Bluey learned that a group of moderate Senate Republicans were about to join Democrats in backing a comprehensive immigration reform bill, he and other bloggers, particularly those on RedState, started calling on their readers to oppose it. Meanwhile, Bluey and other Heritage fellows reached out to let Senate conservatives know it was okay to fight the bill. Several bloggers then posted digital, searchable versions of the bill online. As Bluey tells it, the opposition on the Right snowballed from just a handful of bloggers and senators to talk radio hosts and the rest of the conservative movement.
One advantage of Bluey’s approach, with its emphasis on overseeing conservative Internet efforts through a group like Heritage, is that it lessens the risk of having to cede power to newcomers. An aide to a top Senate Republican, who asked not to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak to the press, pointed to how Web donations fueled Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid and helped vault several Democratic Senate and House candidates, like Montana’s Jon Tester, into office in 2006.
“People on the Right saw that and decided we should be able to have this sort of effect, too,” the aide says. “At the same time, people look at the Left, the netroots, and say we don’t want to be exactly like them: a constituent block that demands fealty.”
But ask the Left netroots about this, and they’ll argue that conservatives are the ones who aren’t small-d democratic enough to thrive on the Internet.
The Undiscovered Country
More than Democrats, Republicans like to run a tight, disciplined ship. So, as the conservative movement figures out its online future, there’s bound to be some tension. The kerfuffle on RedState over posts from Ron Paul supporters is a prime example. Paul enjoys massive support online, but is still polling in the single digits and his views hardly mesh with the rest of the Republican Party. So after seeing enough comments from Paul supporters that had gratuitous exclamation points and references to the North American Union, NAFTA Superhighway and Zionists, RedState banned comments about Paul from users who had been registered to the site for less than six months.
“Now, I could offer a long-winded explanation for *why* this new policy is being instituted,” wrote RedState’s Leon Wolf in explaining the decision, “but I’m guessing that most of you can probably guess. Unless you lack the self-awareness to understand just how annoying, time-consuming, and bandwidthwasting responding to the same idiotic arguments from a bunch of liberals pretending to be Republicans can be.”
Put another way: The folks over at RedState weren’t willing to relinquish control over its blog posts to a group of people they weren’t sure would help the party. But All and a handful of other conservative bloggers disagreed, arguing that they would need Republicans of all stripes next year.
All even called Paul the Howard Dean of 2008, the candidate who represents a much needed “revolution,” prompting Erickson to snap back: “I really don’t want David being the tech strategist on the Right the media goes to for comment if he’s more dazzled by the bells and whistles than by the cause.”
Despite the infighting and doubts over the Web, All remains sanguine about the future of his party and the technology. To drive his point home, he offers another analogy.
“Many people are modern ostriches,” All says. “They want to stick their head in the sand and think that the Internet is not making the biggest impact in politics since TV commercials. It’s even bigger than that. It’s the most important thing ever.”