No doubt my friends in the establishment press are looking forward to a bitter and divisive brawl between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton all the way up to the Democratic National Convention, but the truth is that even at its nastiest, the 2008 presidential nominating process has thus far been an extraordinarily civil war compared to previous campaigns. Still, while the candidates have mostly managed to stay out of the muck, their partisan supporters in the blogosphere are now poised to march into combat rakes in hand, the posts and comment threads of many of our leading blogs serving as battlefields in an increasingly bloody war of words.
To which I caution my comrades in the progressive netroots… who the hell cares?
There isn’t a nickel’s difference between Obama and Clinton on most policy issues, at least not substantive enough that it can’t be overcome by a commanding congressional majority, and both candidates arguably occupy the same center/center-left ideological niche. We may prefer one candidate’s health care plan over the other, or one candidate’s historical record on the occupation of Iraq, but both Obama and Clinton largely share the same agenda, and either would be far preferable to the Republican alternative. But most important to movement progressives like me, while both are good Democrats, and both have clear paths toward victory in November, neither is exactly what we would call a “netroots candidate,” and thus neither deserves the sort of unrelenting partisan passion that now threatens to distract our ranks, if not actually split them.
I personally like Clinton, and believe she has the makings of an excellent president… but isn’t she an icon of the very Democratic establishment we are all working so hard to challenge? And I do find Obama genuinely inspiring, and believe he may be able to deliver the kind of personal leadership we desperately need at this unique moment in our nation’s history, but… as phenomenally successful as his grassroots efforts have been both on- and offline, hasn’t he merely borrowed the techniques and technology of the netroots while showing little if any interest in growing our movement or building our institutions outside the narrow interests of his own campaign?
Both candidates have raised staggering amounts of money online and harnessed the power of the Internet in ways barely imagined just a few years before, and we should all be greatly encouraged by this shifting political paradigm. But Obama and Clinton’s Internet strategies have had little more to do with the progressive netroots than the surprising online success of Ron Paul. They are not, and never have been our candidates; they are merely the last two standing.
Nor should we have had any reasonable expectation of nominating a netroots Democrat in 2008, at such an early stage in a movement that will take at least another decade or two to reach full fruition. The presidential contest is necessarily the race on which we have the least influence and the least impact, and regardless of who wins, the White House is the office to which we will surely have the least direct access. As this campaign unfolds the blogosphere will play an increasingly critical role in helping to shift media coverage and shape the public debate, but the decisions of a handful of campaign strategists will be far more decisive in determining the outcome of the presidential race than we can ever hope to be in this particular cycle. The netroots are surely a force to be reckoned with — but in the context of presidential politics that sentiment is best conjugated in the future indicative.
It is hard not to get caught up in the hopes and passions of the race for the White House, but bloggers and other netroots activists must not get distracted from the long, hard task of building the infrastructure that will make a true “netroots president” a realistic objective. That candidate will come from the ranks of the House or the Senate or from a governor’s mansion, and that candidate must be someone who doesn’t just share our values, but who has also shared our burden in building a new progressive movement from the ground up. That candidate may be one of the dozens we are now working to elect this cycle, but we will never find out if we don’t succeed in putting them in an office where they have the opportunity to establish their credentials on a national stage, while working with us to build toward the future.
It is not that the choice between Obama and Clinton isn’t important, it is just that as bloggers we cannot afford to allow this drawn out nomination process to distract us from the House, Senate, gubernatorial and other local races where we can truly make a difference. These true netroots candidates can’t wait until the end of August for us to refocus our attention; they need our energy, our creativity and our financial resources now. Neither Obama nor Clinton can secure enough pledged delegates to seal the nomination, and so for better or worse, the decision is now in the hands of the party establishment. Let them deal with it, while we keep our eye on the prize of gradually and relentlessly transforming the party itself.