Republican politicians make the most interesting Twitterers.

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June 9 2009 7:12 PM

The Twitter Opposition

Republican politicians make the most interesting Twitterers.

Newt Gingrich. Click image to expand.
Newt Gingrich 

Republican organizers have been trying to coax the faithful onto social-networking sites like Twitter for a while now. They shouldn't have to work that hard: Some Republican politicians are already making news on Twitter.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Recently, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called Sonia Sotomayor a racist, and current Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley rebuked President Obama: "Pres Obama you got nerve while u sightseeing in Paris to tell us 'time to deliver' on health care. We still on skedul/even workinWKEND," wrote Grassley in the shortened vernacular of the form. Soon thereafter, he Tweeted: "Pres Obama while u sightseeing in Paris u said 'time to delivr on healthcare' When you are a 'hammer' u think evrything is NAIL I'm no NAIL."

Regardless of your political views, this kind of behavior should be encouraged. Press secretaries and strategists from both parties have been conspiring to hide the true views of their political clients for years now. So anything that allows politicians to give full expression to the id is to the good. It injects unpredictability, randomness, and texture (or txtur as Grsly wd type it) into our politics.

It also helps cut to the chase. Gingrich saved us all several days of asking GOP leaders to explain their euphemisms. We learned where everyone stood pretty quickly (which is to say that most of them stood far away from Gingrich). A White House aide says Gingrich pushed the administration to clarify what Sotomayor actually meant when she referred to the role her gender and ethnicity play in the decisions she makes. (Perhaps a White House aide could have Twittered the clarification of Sotomayor's views—because the more they talked about them, the more confusing it got.)

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As for Grassley's point (such as it can be divined), it's always instructive to learn what lawmakers really think. He was peeved at the president, obviously, but he was also trying to get him involved in the process Congress has been working on for months. It would be nice to get some clarity on what Obama believes about a national health care mandate, taxing employer benefits, and a public option.

Of course, the Gingrich and Grassley episodes are likely to cause those political strategists to bar their clients from getting Twitter accounts. It's safe to say that these kinds of tweets are not what Republican operatives have in mind when they promote Twitter. Republican leaders spent several days rebuking Gingrich, and he ultimately had to back off. Grassley's remarks were more benign, but he did sound a little bit like an old man yelling from the porch into an empty cornfield.

Still, as off-message as these two examples are, they are closer to what might actually be effective in political communication than most of what's currently on Twitter. Politics used to be ruled by bumper-sticker phrases—sharp declarative jabs—but when it comes to Twitter, where entries are only slightly longer than a bumper-sticker sentiment, the instinct has been to make everything anodyne. (This is true for most CEOs and famous people on Twitter, too. A good rule of thumb: If someone has a publicity photo as their Twitter avatar, they're likely to serve it up bland and beige.)

Most politicians use Twitter to dish out talking points. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California uses Twitter to respond to unhappy constituents and justify his exercise regimen, but mostly he tells us where he's going to be speaking in 10 minutes. Claire McCaskill of Missouri has taken to the form, but her tweets are very safe and on message. (She did announce her Valentine's getaway weekend with her husband but, thank goodness, stopped her narration at that.)

Twitter isn't going to stop politicians from sprinkling banalities across the land, but it exposes their banalities for what they are. People who are actually successful on Twitter offer something that's often useful in politics: authenticity and voice. And for Republicans, there's an added benefit to Twitter: If they can make their case in 140 characters, they're probably on the road to solving their message problem. Authenticity is not the only key to success (politicians can be authentically smarmy, authentically disingenuous, and authentically arrogant), but no one was ever convinced by a press release. So if you're going to bother with the Twitter experiment at all, and hope to succeed a little, it's going to require a little risk. People can smell a phony.

For all of us, this risk-taking creates a nice self-outing mechanism. If a politician is unpleasant, small, and conniving, it'll be hard to hide for very long on Twitter. Maybe that will dissuade most politicians from using it. But the chance to speak freely to an audience, unfiltered and in your own words, is why many people get into politics in the first place. The audience is waiting. Now speakers just have to say something worth listening to.

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