WASHINGTON — If Jerome Armstrong succeeds in refining the art of political warfare, Virginia’s ex-governor Mark Warner will be taking the presidential oath of office in front of the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2009.
Armstrong is an evangelist for Democratic Internet activism, the founder of the blog Mydd.com, an alumnus of the Howard Dean campaign, and the co-author of a new book called Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics.
He coined the word “netroots” to describe a 21st century version of the grassroots, door-to-door, union-local politics that used to work so well for the Democrats in the last century.
One is more likely to find the denizens of netroots in a coffee shop with a wireless hot spot than in a United Auto Workers local hall.
A netroots activist need not live in Washington, D.C. He or she can be in Portland or Missoula and still have a national reach. At the netroots, Democratic activists across the country can in a few weeks aim at a House race and raise $500,000, turning a long-shot contest into a near-win.
That is what happened with maverick Democrat Paul Hackett’s near-victory in a heavily Republican House district in Ohio last year.
Now Armstrong is working for Warner’s political action committee, Forward Together PAC.
What he'll do for Warner
Armstrong’s task for Warner is to handle “anything that deals with the Internet or technology, especially with the strategic decisions that are made early on in terms of the vendor relationships, the people we bring on."
Why Warner, rather than, say Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh or New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, two other potential 2008 contenders?
“I’ve liked Warner ever since he won the 2001 election,” Armstrong said. “I blogged it, it was one of the first races I blogged on MyDD. I like his personal style of campaigning. I think it’s very effective and he turned out to be a great governor. He’s somebody who is not polarizing and yet enacted things that are very progressive and reinvigorated the Democratic Party here in Virginia.”
As for Internet-based tactics for the 2006 and 2008 campaigns, Armstrong said, “What I’m really looking for is for the campaign to use the Internet as a field mechanism. That’s where I really think it has power ... making it a tool for neighbor-to-neighbor interaction and persuasion. Taking what the Bush campaign did and making it more personal.”
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The Bush campaign used Amway-style networks of one person being responsible for ensuring that ten of his friends and acquaintances voted for Bush.
In his new book which he wrote with Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the proprietor of the Daily Kos web site, Armstrong says the netroots phenomenon is “not an ideological movement – there is actually very little, issue wise, that unites most party activists except perhaps opposition to the Iraq War."
Asked how the Democratic netroots could be non-ideological, Armstrong said, “What I mean is that this is a movement that is born at a time when the Democratic Party is a minority. There’s not much room for ideology when you’re a minority because you don’t have much of a seat at the table.”
Armstrong’s and Moulitsas’s book is an urgent plea to the factions comprising the Democratic Party — abortion rights groups, environmentalists, etc. — to suppress their own self-centered agendas and “focus on the commonality of purpose” by electing Democratic majorities to the House and Senate.
They also urge Democrats to field candidates in all House races, a break with the traditional Democratic strategy of focusing on 30 or 40 competitive districts.
They cite case studies — such as blogger-supported Democratic challenger Stan Matsunaka against Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave in a heavily Republican district in Colorado in 2004 — where an increase in Democratic turnout in one House district can help lift a statewide Democratic candidate to victory. Matsunaka lost, but Democratic Senate candidate Ken Salazar won.
Critical of the old guard
Armstrong and “Kos” are critical of veteran consultants Bob Shrum, Tad Devine, Steve McMahon and others who they accuse of giving bad advice and producing ineffective campaign ads.
Armstrong, who is 42, hasn’t given strategic advice to a dozen Senate candidates or several presidential contenders, as Shrum, Devine and McMahon have.
But in the new world of blogs and Internet activism the barriers to entry to the consulting business have been lowered.
Armstrong says the veterans had trouble adapting in 2004. “When I worked at the Dean campaign, one of the things I handled was on-line advertising,” Armstrong recalled. “I could never convince (media consultants) McMahon and (Mark) Squier to shell out even $10,000 for web advertising in Iowa. And we spent millions and millions of dollars on television. I never got a single dime for Internet advertising in Iowa.”
Armstrong wanted to place Internet ads for Dean on the web sites of 120 small newspaper sites around Iowa.
Asked for comment on Armstrong's account, McMahon responded, "The Dean campaign used the Internet better than any campaign in the history of politics. We did everything we thought could and would be effective. I'm not aware of a single instance where the Internet team didn't get every resource it wanted or needed. At the end of the day, I didn't make the financial decisions, the manager did."
Joe Trippi was Dean's campaign manager.
The Old Politics prevails?
Even in an era of blogger-powered candidacies, some of the old ways of hierarchical, Washington-based politics seem to persist.
Many bloggers were passionately devoted to Hackett and his campaign for the Ohio Senate seat now held by Republican Sen. Mike DeWine.
According to Hackett, he was forced out of the Ohio race last month after Democratic leaders in Washington discouraged donors from giving to his campaign in his primary battle against rival Democrat Rep. Sherrod Brown.
At the end of 2005, Brown had $2.3 million in cash on hand, ten times as much as Hackett.
Asked about Hackett, Armstrong notes that he serves as a consultant to Brown’s campaign so he’s not an impartial observer.
He acknowledged that the whiff of old politics and the circumstances of Hackett’s exit from the race have caused hard feelings among some Ohio Democrats.
“Sherrod has to break through some of that personally and reach out and get across his message to those people,” he said.
But Armstrong sounded nonchalant about Hackett: “The real reason Hackett couldn’t go on is because he got squeezed on the money end. But you know what: on the Dean campaign that’s what we did in the last three months of 2003; that’s the exact same tactic we used. We squeezed all the money out of Edwards, Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt. That’s a tactic that has nothing to do with people-powered campaigns or anything — it’s just the reality of politics.”
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