When Air America Radio launched in 2004, the American left was ailing: Republicans controlled all three branches of government, protests against the Iraq war were going unheeded, and George W. Bush was on his way to re-election. What the left needed, the logic went, was its own Rush Limbaugh—someone to spend all day, every day, kicking the GOP down the stairs. Thus was born Air America. Two years later, it filed for bankruptcy.
In retrospect, the lesson is simple: You can't just copy the other team—you have to come up with your own strategy.
The Republican Party now faces a similar quandary. Its outgoing president is among the most unpopular ever. The race for party chairman is a sideshow. And, worst of all, the Democrats' online infrastructure—from blogging to e-mail lists to fundraising—makes its Republican counterpart look like a cup-and-string apparatus. Part of the blame falls on John McCain and the RNC, who failed to build an online empire when they had the chance. But there's also a hole at the grass-roots level. Where the left has Daily Kos, MyDD, ActBlue, MoveOn, the Huffington Post, and an army of local and state blogs, the right has Pajamas Media, RedState, the Weekly Standard, and the National Review Online. Whereas the Dems have the largest e-list of donors and volunteers ever assembled, the Republicans have, well, a smaller one.
A few new sites have stepped into the void. Rebuild the Party has outlined a 10-point plan that emphasizes online organizing and technology and persuaded all but one RNC candidate to sign on. The Next Right launched in May 2008 as an open-door forum for "wired activists" to share ideas, recruit candidates, and plot strategy—not unlike Daily Kos, although the Next Right rejects that comparison. (This week, the Next Right announced "Project Battleground," a loose network of state blogs.) Conservative writer and former Bush speechwriter David Frum helms the New Majority, a group blog dedicated to ginning up fresh ideas. As far as fundraising, Slatecard, which raised $650,000 for Republicans during the 2008 election cycle, will relaunch next summer. Even Tucker Carlson has a new site in the works, although it's more news-based than "Whither conservatism?"
Some Republicans figure that now that the power dynamic has flipped, so will the innovation. "The left did so well online because they were storming the castle, and the right had trouble because they were governing the castle," says Web strategist and Next Right co-founder Jon Henke. "Governing the castle is difficult and not really as much fun. It's not conducive to the online environment." The genius of the netroots was to take the three Ms—"messaging, mobilization, and money"—outside the traditional party channels, thereby accruing power. There's no reason the Republicans can't do that too, Henke argues.
But the Air America question remains: Can the right simply imitate the left's success? Or does it need to follow Karl Rove's advice—to concede Web 2.0 to the Dems and focus on Web 3.0—and reinvent the game once again?
"I think one big mistake in politics is to look at something that succeeded and say, Let's do it again," says David Frum. To repeat the success of the netroots, per Frum, would be to create a massive network of blogs whose collective shrieks generate enough volume—and cash—to get noticed.
But that formula is outdated, Frum says. "For the last 16 years, we've had presidents who have been pretty centrist in their politics but highly divisive and provocative in their political tactics." In that climate, whoever yells the loudest wins. But Obama is "someone we haven't seen since Reagan," says Frum. "Someone with a strong ideological message but delivered in a less inflammatory way." Obama's critics need to match his tone. "It would be a big mistake to raise the decibel level," Frum says. "I think in politics as in television, whoever loses his temper first loses."
If you don't believe him, look at the fuss over Obama's birth certificate. The more Obama's detractors shouted, the sillier they looked. Part of the problem, says Frum, is the "deep asymmetry of American political culture. … Say someone on the left calls for the assassination of George W. Bush—he gets a book contract from Farrar, Straus and Giroux." (For the record, it was Knopf.) "Now suppose someone calls for the assassination of Barack Obama. It's Dallas, 1963, and we're all guilty." As a result, conservative sites are terrified of what their commenters might say. (Neither NRO nor the Weekly Standard has comment sections.) "We are held more responsible for our lunatics than the left is held for their lunatics."
The solution, Frum says, is to use a scalpel, not a bullhorn: "What is required is not just to point and shriek outrage, but close study, close reporting, close monitoring of what the Obama administration is up to." That could be sifting a budget for pork, criticizing the raising of CAFE standards, or picking apart the rationale behind closing Guantanamo.
Another reason the right can't simply imitate the left is there's no "unifying grievance" like the Iraq war—at least not yet. For one thing, Obama hasn't done anything particularly controversial. "There's no fuel in the stove yet," says Joe Trippi, who was Howard Dean's media guru in 2004. Recall it took years for the left to rack up enough beef—Clinton's impeachment, the 2000 recount, the Iraq war—to forge a coalition. "The right can build all the tools it wants, but without a narrative and a rallying point for action, it will be for naught," wrote Patrick Ruffini in his mission statement for the Next Right. The stimulus package offers the right a compelling target. But it has yet to be voted on.
Other elements have to align, too: The "rightroots" will need a Howard Dean—someone to harness their energy in the political realm. The name that came up most in conversation was Sarah Palin. McCain's online donations exploded when he introduced her in August, and she still boasts a passionate online following. The right also has to match the left's extreme locality—i.e., get people jazzed about small races as much as big ones. To that end, the revamped Slatecard will include a recommendations feature not unlike Netflix's or Amazon's. If you liked this Senate candidate, you'll love this candidate for Spokane city comptroller! And last, they need their own news. Talking Points Memo has reinvented muckraking from the left. The right needs it own investigative shop. If Tucker Carlson's site doesn't fill the void, someone else should.
The "rightroots" could still be a long way off. For one thing, Obama simply isn't Bush. "I think there's a lot of passion in the country to throw partisanship out the window," says Trippi. That fact "could be a decelerator." Plus, by pledging to create the "most transparent administration ever," Obama makes the muckrakers' jobs easier—and harder. In his first week, Obama fired off a memo to agency heads urging openness and a directive to loosen FOIA standards. Sure, people will find information that's embarrassing to the administration. But if the administration wasn't trying to hide it, the exposés won't have the same outrage factor.
There's also a lurking downside to all this connectedness, which is that the Internet could, in the words of one Republican official, "do more harm than good." "There seems to be a major fracture developing between ultra-conservatives" and moderate libertarians in the party, he explained. If one group—say, the Christian right—decided to mobilize online and hold the party hostage, they could very well splinter the GOP.
In other words, the Web isn't just a force for unity; it's a force for division, too. This much was evident on the Democratic side during the campaign, when Obama had to fight back an online rebellion over his stance on retroactive immunity for telecom companies. But in the end, Democrats were so desperate for victory that they unified. It may take years for that sense of desperation to seep into the GOP.
Whatever happens, it has to occur organically, says Henke. That's not easy for Republicans, who are used to top-down organization. It requires ceding control. It also requires listening. But if the party is going to tell a story about the Obama administration, it has to come from the bottom up. "Organic" … "ceding control" … "bottom up." This should be interesting.