Democratic presidential candidate Tom Vilsack was in his car, racing to a dinner engagement in California with the radio tuned to President Bush’s State of the Union address. He pulled out his BlackBerry and began typing.
“I am not only interested in hearing your thoughts about the speech,” he wrote in an online political forum at , “but also your ideas about what we should be doing as a country.”
His post kicked off a lengthy conversation between Vilsack, GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee and community members from across the country. While Bush addressed the nation in a decades-old American ritual, two men who hoped to succeed him engaged in a 21st century conversation – online, surrounded by an e-community and authentically two-way.
“Greetings from Arkansas,” Huckabee wrote a few minutes before the speech began, “where I’ll watch the SOTU and then share the Soup with my friend and former colleague, Tom Vilsack. We’re on different sides of the political fence, but share a common view that it’s time to start actually solving problems – and this country has several.”
His theme of can-do bipartisanship struck a chord with community members. “What happened to the 9/11 patriotism and compassion for each other?” wrote “iturrian” in a post just before the speech began. “Emersonssoul,” one of HOTSOUP’s most partisan members, echoed the sentiment. “I think we should all (myself included) try to keep the venom to a minimum,” he said. “These are issues that people are really passionate about, and sometimes passion precludes rational thought and civility.”
With that, Bush’s speech began and Vilsack stepped up his pace. In a quick procession of posts, the former two-term Iowa governor criticized Bush’s policies on energy security, immigration and Iraq. “The brightest minds on Madison Avenue couldn’t sell the president’s Iraq policy,” he wrote as the president stood before Congress and discussed the war.
Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who is actively considering a GOP presidential bid, called Bush’s goal to reduce gasoline usage by 20 percent a good start. “But I was disappointed that the president has still failed to address the crumbling infrastructure of our highways, bridges, airports, and water systems. We have neglected the infrastructure for too long.”
The Republican tepidly praised Bush for promising to give states more flexibility in the area of health care. “Let’s hope he was serious …,” Huckabee wrote.
A technical gaffe briefly closed the discussion forum (called “Loops” at HOTSOUP.com), but that didn’t stop the dialogue. Leigh Amiot, 43, of Valdosta, who goes by the username “middleagemom,” created a temporary Loop for the community, and dragged the governors into it. “Are we back in business? I’m pretty sure this is part of the vast left-wing conspiracy!” Huckabee joked.
Community members asked dozens of questions, and the governors answered several. Vilsack, for example, fielded a query about the ethanol subsidies – an important issue in Iowa, which holds the first presidential caucuses. “Personally, I don’t agree with the current ethanol subsidies,” he said. “Ethanol subsidies should be pegged to the price of oil, so that the price of oil cannot be dropped to undercut renewable fuels.”
At times, the online session seemed more like an electronic bull session than a presidential campaign event.
“By the way,” Huckabee wrote, “greetings to my friend, Governor Vilsack. Good to be with you in cyberspace, Tom, and give my regards to Christy! Janet says, ‘hey!’”
“Governor Huckabee,” the Iowan replied. “It is good to (be) blogging with you here at the Soup, and pass my warmest regards to Janet.”
Several community members kidded Vilsack for using a BlackBerry. “Your thumbs must be quite tired from typing replies to all of our questions,” said a writer from Idaho. “Thanks.”
Join the conversation at .